When the phone call comes, James is having lunch with Zoe Suskin. He excuses himself for a moment, assuming the call is work, plugging a finger into his other ear to block the creak of bicycle clatter. He listens and, after a while, he begins to respond mechanically. Sweat prickles his neck. He squints into white halations: the sun glancing over spires, going scattershot with its beams. The bell-heavy air unbalanced by sunlight. Yes, I understand. Yes. Yes. Thank you for calling. He’s wearing a soft t-shirt, he reflects. So much exposed skin, so many parts undefended. He curls an arm over his belly, wishing for a three-piece suit.
Zoe says, “James? What’s the matter?”
He stands with his mobile in his hand, not speaking. “Nothing,” he says. “Nothing’s the matter.”
“You know you’re rubbish at lying to me.”
He could lie to her, probably, if he tried; but it rarely occurs to them to lie to each other. Why bother, when so many uncomfortable truths have been shared from the start?
“It was an executor,” he says. “Someone I knew a long time ago has died, and he wrote me into his will. I wasn’t expecting it, that’s all.”
“Oh,” Zoe says. “Are you sad? Will you be rich now?”
“No,” James tells her. And: “Not as rich as you are.”
“Only as clever.”
An old argument. He flicks a stray leaf in reprimand.
They are picnicking in what Zoe calls her Secret Garden: a small courtyard just around the corner from Lonsdale, behind a low stone wall, in the shade of the yews. It is one of the last hot days of summer, what people call an Indian summer. Yes, these are the dog-days, Fortunatus, he thinks absurdly—heavy and smouldering and overripe—he should have guessed— the long slow gestation of dread and awe—
James has work he ought to be doing, but Zoe always bullies him into these lunches, which in fact he secretly rather enjoys. She said once, I like that I can bully you. I like that you aren’t defenseless. He said, I think you overestimate my resources. Zoe’s mother doesn’t approve, but Zoe is twenty years old, a postgraduate now: nothing to be done about it. I’ve told her you aren’t interested in girls, Zoe said, but she doesn’t believe me. James frowned and said, I’m not not interested in girls. Zoe rolled her eyes in impatience, to which there was nothing he could say.
I like that you’re not— Zoe had said, You’re not— And he had known what she had meant. Frangible, he’d suggested. Yes. Frangible, she’d agreed. James thinks that the opposite of frangible is someone built to survive, built to curl up, scuttle, metamorphose, outlast blows.
They are both stick-limbed now; they don’t look especially sturdy. Zoe’s shot up a foot. She grows like a weed. Difficult, to be so suddenly angles and elbows. He remembers. Maybe she likes the garden for this reason: a place where she’s not easy to see. She’s so visible in other ways already: prodigy, half-orphan, heiress. The government had paid her mother a lot of money. James doesn’t know the details. They had had a lot of money to begin with. What a comfortable life she’s had in some ways. Not in others. Still, sometimes he is acrid with envy.
“I don’t think it’s money,” he says. “The— bequest.”
“What, then? A haunted house? A castle?”
“Nothing so banal or so harmless, I’m sure.” James stretches out on the lawn and covers his eyes with one hand. Quite abruptly, his head has started to hurt. He listens to the noise of Zoe packing up the hamper. Soft sounds of someone being careful. Somewhere far-off: laughter. A bird.
“I don’t know how to behave when people die,” Zoe says at last. “I don’t think I feel like other people. I never seem to know what to say.”
“Emotional intelligence. Always the weak spot.”
“I worry that it makes me a bad person.”
“He wasn’t a very nice man, the man who died. If it makes a difference. So you don’t have to say anything on my account.” Hathaway moves his hand so he can fix his gaze on her. She is chewing on a stray curl, looking dismayed. “You aren’t a bad person. It doesn’t make you a bad person.”
Unsmiling, she plucks a white wildflower out of the grass and proffers it to him with a serious expression.
“Flower in the crannied wall, I pluck you out of the crannies,” Hathaway pronounces, taking it gravely. “I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,/ Little flower— but if I could understand / What you are, root and all, and all in all—“ He breaks off, twirling the flower between two idle fingers.
“You always knows just what to say, don’t you,” Zoe says after a pause. “Yes— I suppose you’re right. That’s part of it.”
The envelope arrives by courier the next day. James has to sign to receive it, so he can’t just pretend that it doesn’t exist. He finds himself unable, then, to set it on the table unopened. As if it’s an armed explosive or an animal in a cage. He breaks the wax seal, with its Mortmaigne crest, and unfolds a single sheet of paper.
My beautiful James, the letter begins. Black ink, antiquated script.
James turns it face-down on the table and walks away. Why face-down? —As though the ink can see him, can sense his movements. The eyes of a haunted portrait in a horror house: an infant terror. He pours himself a drink and then returns to place the letter in a drawer. He can’t rest with it in the room. He is acutely aware of where it is.
He lights a cigarette and smokes it leaning out the window. Listens to some recordings of Pérotin. Then parts of the Toulouse Mass: the Agnus Dei. Rex immense pietatis. He considers the last cigarette left in the pack. Warm air swims through the window, smelling of petrol and pizza. Oxford, in the blue dusk, is animated: long red streams of taillights, blue glow of iPhones flashing, bicycle lamps like luminous fish. There is a casual life outside the heart. He never ceases to be amazed. He rests his elbows on the sill and wishes that he could call Lewis. He can’t imagine what he would possibly say.
Are you going to read it or not? Lewis would ask, brusque and practical as ever. Either way, might as well get it over and done with.
But I can’t, James imagines himself saying.
Why not? What are you so afraid he might have written?
[Beautiful James. Gifted James. Beloved of me when not by others, not beloved of ****** and ****** who could not (no, never) understand you… ]
[If you hadn’t squandered your gifts— If only you’d fulfilled your potential— You could have stayed loved, you know, if only you’d remained…]
[In me secrets and half-formed desires meet— (Secrets! Oh, secrets!)]
Of course, James can’t not cede the floor again to his imaginary Lewis, who would certainly not mitigate his response to this: The man was a monster! He’d been locked up in prison! I certainly hope you’re not listening to this nonsense.
No, sir. Of course not.
And while we’re having this conversation— do you often talk to me in your head?
He sighs and lights the second cigarette, letting his head drop. Some things don’t fit into ordinary speech, sir.
Well, what kind of speech do they fit in?
I’m not sure I know that yet.
He has been searching in books for such a long time, struggling to find some set of words into which he’d fit. Surely someone since the dawn of time has felt what he is feeling. Surely someone has worked out a taxonomy for it, a new Linnaean system of emotions. There should be pages with lots of diagrams, neatly labelled.
Sometimes he studies his face in mirrors. People tell him he’s hard to read, and he tries to see it, but his own face seems to him no more mysterious than others.
Beautiful. My beautiful James.
Bucked up by another whiskey, he slips the drawer open, drawing out once more the dreadful Thing. He expects it to be skin-temperature, alive in his hand, but it’s not. He puts the glass down and turns his back to the window. His shoulderblades grow warm with the sunset as he starts to read.
“The Mortmaignes are selling everything,” says James, aiming for indifference.
From Lewis’s fast glance upwards, he hasn’t managed to succeed. “Jumble sale, is it?”
“Something of the sort.”
“Out at Crevecoeur?”
“Mm.” James wishes for a cigarette.
They’re at the allotment, James perched upon a fence-rail as Lewis roots round playing rustic. No Smoking has been a rule at the allotment since Hathaway first poked his head in, back in the spring, eager for a chance to make jokes about Farmer Bob and his onions. He hadn’t thought he’d come back after that; he’s careful, these days, about taking up Lewis’s time. And anyway, he himself is no outdoorsman. Not keen. More into books. But that wasn’t the only reason, was it? Estate manager’s son— the boys at school always imagined that his home was something out of Virgil’s Eclogues or Saint-Just’s republic. (Les cimetières seront de riants paysages.) A wet dream that the whole eighteenth century was having— rollicking lambs and farmers, rambling lanes. But Crevecoeur hadn’t been like that.
The strange thing is that he can’t remember. That is: he can’t remember the way it was then. When he thinks about it, he gets oddly, unaccountably queasy. He smells a phantom and very familiar odour of rotting bodies. That can’t be right; no one had died yet, and later Linda Grahame had rotted away long before they exhumed her. Perhaps they’d found something in the woods, he and Paul and Scarlett. An incident he can’t quite recall. Had they? The corpse of a hare or a fox or a bird. (The Pheasant, Partiridge, and the Larke,/ Flew to thy house as to the Arke.) There was no shortage of animals for the dying.
And he had spent so many afternoons out in the forest, which had been both wider and deeper in those days, bramble-speckled and wet-bruise-coloured in its shadows, disturbed by unseen rustling. It seemed to creep up around the edges of the estate. In a rainstorm: leaves thrashing against the summer house windows, sparking a claustrophobia in him. (He was so often, anyways, claustrophobic: compressed into one superdense star, a neutron star, dense as an atomic nucleus, the end product of massive gravitational collapse, the tiny hot star called James Hathaway, small in the blank void of his body’s vastness…) Creaking and caterwauling, all of nature as one lumbering animal, mauling the ornamental house with its hands.
A buckthorn had once pierced his thumb when he was out in the forest. Blood had welled up like water struck from the stones at Meribah, when the Israelites turned their backs on God. He had left a trail of blood behind him, running fast-as-you-can back home, conviction gripping the bones of him that something in that forest would eat him up. Something in that forest could smell his blood. Taste it. He doesn’t know now what he thought it was. He’d been, in those days, such a haunted kid.
“Hey,” Lewis says, and waves a hand at him.
“You went someplace else for a minute,” Lewis observes.
James breathes in and can smell rosemary, rue, and clary. Fresh sharp tilled-earth scents that cut through his fog. He feels like an enchantment has suddenly been lifted. He looks and sees that Lewis has trodden in the herb beds, made careless by his concern. “You’re trampling your herbs,” James says. “I thought you were only growing veg this year.”
“Ah, it’s an old tradition. Or— superstition, like. I used to help me gran in the garden, and she always insisted on having a patch of herbs just by the fence line. She had a nursery rhyme about it: Pansy, maudlin, penny and rue/ To sow the virtues of Matthew and Luke,/ Clary, blackvine, oak-tree bark/ To guard the gospels of John and Mark. Don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean, but it reminds me of her. She was always full of that kind of talk.”
“I like it. Rosemary for Our Lady, I suppose.”
“Can’t remember. ” Lewis is still watching him with creased, careful eyes. “What were we talking about?” As though he doesn’t know.
James chews on his thumbnail, looking out at an amateur trellis. “Augustus Mortmaigne died. That’s why they’re— I don’t know; I don’t really know anything about entail; they’re selling— everything, I think, except for specific bequests. And he—”
“He left you something?” One of the great gifts of Robbie Lewis is that gentle, practical, ordinary tone. It makes James think of corduroy worn thin, soft places where you want to touch it for comfort.
“A painting. Apparently.”
“Do you want it?”
James shrugs. “It could be valuable, I suppose.”
“Does that matter?”
Another shrug. James looks down, studying the herbs in their tidy rows. There’s pansy. A little western flower, also called heartsease. Rosemary, in reality, means “dew of the sea.” Ros marinus, because it grows beside the ocean. Still, it always makes him think of the three wise Maries, les saintes Maries de la Mer, sailing westward from Judaea across open waters. Rosemary crawling up the coast as they searched for a harbour, seasick and miracle-weary…
“Ah, come here,” Lewis says, laying a hand on James’ shoulder. “You’re fretting. There’s only one cure for that.”
“Let me guess: it involves weeding.”
“Look how wise you’ve gotten.”
Lewis shows him how to identify the worst offenders, how to get a good grasp of them by the roots.
“These jeans are tailored,” James complains as he kneels in the grass, and then, showing off short nails caked with black dirt: “Look at this! Absolutely barbaric.” But in fact he likes the responsiveness of earth under his fingers, the crumbly soil and the spiderwork of fine thin plant strands, something big and alive that he can touch in small pieces. Heavy fat bees hang round the marrow flowers— Lewis waves them back with an amiable hand— and everything is agricolic, so perfectly ordinary, like nothing at all from a poem. Like nothing to be afraid of.
“We’ll make an honest farmer of you yet,” Lewis says later, sending him home with a sackful of carrots, even though Hathaway has mistakenly weeded two incognito radishes out, and done some damage to a tall bunch of parsley. Neither of them mentions anything more about Crevecoeur, but it’s there anyways, ineradicable, and James experiences a moment of bleakness: how is he ever to escape? He can’t not talk about it even by not talking about it.
James gets a call that night, from an unknown number, but whoever it is doesn’t leave a message. Then later, again— just a click in the static of his voicemail. He wonders if it’s Scarlett, but: surely not. He wonders if it’s Nell, but he doubts she even knows about Mortmaigne, or that, if she did, she would care. She’s so much younger than him; she’d been only five when they left Crevecoeur.
The next day, he checks his mobile at work and sees another voicemail. When he checks it, there’s a long silence before a voice says, “You gave me your card. You won’t remember. You said to call if— this is Briony Grahame.”
Maddox gives him an odd look when he stops in the middle of the crowded pavement.
“I just have to go and,” he says. “It’s—“
But he doesn’t know how to explain, and anyway, Maddox is used to the halts and silences that seem to punctuate all of his explanatory attempts. So he simply steps away to listen to the message.
When he returns, Maddox squints up at him and says, “Has someone died, sir?”
—Which strikes him as hysterically funny, so much so that Maddox becomes quite concerned for him, because he doesn’t laugh, apparently, except in apocalyptic crisis, and he has to assure her that in the eschaton they resideth not yet. That’s what he says, actually: “Fear not, Lizzie; we reside not yet in the eschaton,” to which she rolls her eyes with a long-suffering expression.
“Cause enough for celebration, I suppose,” she says, and tows him off down the pub to doctor him with IPA till he has agreed to speak ordinary English again.
You said to call if— This is Briony Grahame, says the message. I’ll be in Oxford. Titus and I are— settling affairs. There’s— not a wake; a sort of anti-wake, I suppose. A “thank God it’s finally over” party, you might think of it. For members of the family, and people who… Everyone in the will. A chance to collect your inheritance. You don’t have to, of course— Anyway, but I suppose I’d— like it if you did. I suppose I’d like to speak to you before I— At any rate, I’ll leave you my number—
A strange message. Briony sounds posh now (a stone thrown from his glass castle), turned adult and upper-class by the intervening years— presumably Titus’s influence. But then lapsing at times into a plain, child-like cadence. The sound of her voice is disturbing to him, and he doesn’t know why. Something labile in the timbre. The shifts in persona. This idea of a party: insane, obviously, though he can see the glint of grim aristocratic humour. Not her idea, but whose? Scarlett’s? Will Scarlett be there? The last he had heard, she was living in a cloister in Tunisia— some sort of Catholic sanatorium for the super-rich— having suffered an unspecified breakdown in Morocco. He doesn’t know Titus; can’t say what his sense of humour’s like.
Odd, that Titus and Briony are still together. But James has an advantage in understanding this: he knows that a past, a past past, a Past, a PAST, presents logistical challenges above all else. How to say and not-say at the right intervals. One becomes an expert at not-speaking. The world’s an interrogation, to which the key is learning never to betray the secrets of the crime you hadn’t known you were involved in.
Easier if the other person knows the PAST already. What a relief, not to have to explain the unexplainable. The heart knoweth its own bitterness, but no one else can know. Except Christ, Christina Rossetti would have said.
James listens to the message again. His primary feeling is one of unease. But then: his primary feeling is unease, full stop. It’s his dominant mode. When he calls Briony to say he’s coming, her voice on the phone sounds hollow, as though a part of her has been removed. He rings off after a string of awkward silences, and gets the Scotch from the cupboard.
He ends up stretched out on the sofa, several glasses later, feeling sick and spin-headed and rather vague. He is thinking of Scarlett. He’d made a pledge to Scarlett once. Is he sure he remembers what it had been? He had married her. They’d been eight years old, out in the woods. It had all felt very serious. Will you, Scarlett had said, and he’d said, Yes, yes, I will. The term for this form of utterance is “performative.” Something happens because of something you’ve said. Something changes. This is how spells used to work; this is why you have to be careful with words. You have to be careful what you confess.
Scarlett had always claimed that a monstrous tiger lived on the Crevecoeur estate. He hasn’t thought of this in ages. Her eyes alight, she had said, “There is a tiger that guards this house. Didn’t you know? Only a Mortmaigne can summon it. It lives at the heart of the maze. It eats heretics and oathbreakers. Its breath smells of blood, and its teeth are the colour of milk . If you break your oath to a Mortmaigne, it will come and eat you up.”
James hadn’t believed her. He hadn’t been a credulous child. But hadn’t he seen a tiger at Crevecoeur once? Or had he dreamt it? Or had it been something his father had said? A story told, a shadow flickering on the wall of his bedroom, the tapping of tree-branches at his window: nature’s threatening fingertips. Had it really been Scarlett who said that— If you break your oath to a Mortmaigne— or someone very different? You mustn’t tell anyone, James. Do you promise? If you break your oath to a Mortmaigne…
He’s too drunk to sort it out, drunk and hazy. His mobile phone is ringing, somewhere in the cushions of the sofa. He tries to dig it out, somewhat successfully, and catches it on the last ring. “Hathaway.”
Silence on the other end. It’s a quality of silence that comes from far away, sort of fuzzy round the edges, clouded with artifacts of distance. James can hear what sounds like a radio broadcast for a moment, a blurt of static and a bit of Schubert’s twentieth piano sonata. The Andantino: one of his favourite pieces, but oh so melancholy, even for Schubert.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” he says.
Nothing. The line goes dead after a few seconds. The whole thing is so peculiar, and he’s so heavy-headed with drink, that later he will convince himself he’s only imagined it.
Crevecoeur. He’d been here last on a green morning with Lewis, a glorious and intolerably English day when mist had lifted early from the painted-looking lawns and edifices had impersonated an earlier, pseudo-graceful age. A very good day for bringing out the bodies. Lots of light to shed on things that had mouldered in darkness. In the afternoon, as they were leaving the estate, it had rained. James had sat in the car, his arm in a sling, and listened to the water drumming on the roof. He had leant his head against the window, feeling like a stained-glass window, made up of see-through pieces.
Now at last the prolonged summer is losing way to autumn and the whole place has a palpable aura of decay. Lack of upkeep: grass going wild and buildings stubbled with ivy. Wildflowers cobbling the lawns in various gold and red shades. The trees are heavy and beginning to turn a little. Soon enough they will be unburdened of leaves. Margaret, are you grieving/ Over Goldengrove unleaving? He used to tease Scarlett, asking her that. It is the blight man was born for,/ It is Margaret you mourn for. Though she had looked at him with an oddly alien expression and said matter-of-factly, “James, you’re the one who grieves.”
The door to the house is open: no butler, no one taking names at all. James, just peering inside, can see white sheets drawn across mirrors and tables, a few white lilies in heavy vases, dust motes circulating in stray rings of light. He hears the low hum of voices from somewhere upstairs. They sound extraordinarily like flies, and he has a morbid moment of thinking that it’s what they are, after all: flies gathered round a dead body, to feast on the corpse. At this thought, the house seems to change for an instant. What had been a quite ordinary indoor darkness becomes something else. It is the corpse, he thinks, and it is not quite dead… The dust motes, surely stirred by drafts from centuries-old construction, seem to move instead with the breath from some unseen lungs. The angles of the hall are uncomfortably mobile, as though the walls themselves twitch with hypnic jerks, stairs tensing and relaxing like tendons in limbs. Irrationally, James is reluctant to enter.
But then Briony is emerging out of the gangrene-grey gloom, saying, “James!” She’s lost weight, and she’s wearing a slim black sheath dress. Her hair is pulled very tightly behind her head. “I wasn’t sure you’d come,” she says, and kisses his cheek lightly. Like moths’ wings, the brush of her lips.
James tries to study her. She won’t quite meet his eyes. “I wouldn’t miss the chance to see you,” he says. It’s the tone of voice he might have used with Zoe, half-serious and half a brotherly jest. But he doesn’t know Briony that well. He isn’t her brother, and he thinks she can sense the false note.
“Everyone’s upstairs,” she says. “Let me show you. There’s champagne. You didn’t have to wear black,” she adds, turning away, because he did wear black, black shirt, black suit, black tie, because in the end he hadn’t known what to wear. “I told you, it’s not a wake.”
“You wore black,” James says. She’s wearing a diamond pendant and a diamond solitaire in each of her ears. They glitter as she steps back into the house, her heels clicking.
“Tradition, I suppose. It’s hard to break free of.”
And then he too is in the house. It smells of lilies and camphor. He supposes no one has been living in it.
“We’ve put all the pictures in one of the side parlours,” Briony says over her shoulder. “I’ll show you; after the party you can look at them and pick any one of them you like. Except the Old Masters; those are all being sold to collectors. Oh, the will wasn’t specific about the paintings; you didn’t know?”
James shakes his head mutely.
“Well. I’ll explain later. Here we are,” she says, as they enter the upstairs dining room. “Ti, look, James Hathaway’s here.”
The room is crowded, and conversations seems to pause for a moment as Briony and James enter the room— pale faces turning towards them, printed with a note of some emotion. But perhaps it’s just surprise, because almost at once the talk resumes: that chittering hum.
Some of the guests he’s sure he knows. He assumes that the majority of them are Mortmaignes— he sees a few of Scarlett’s cousins, some more distant relations he knows he’s met— a handful of Colemans, and some of the elderly African branch of the Mortmaigne family. Then there are a surprising number of staff or former staff, the children of staff, the estate’s children. The Danvers sisters, Juliet and Andrea, are talking quietly by a window. James had known them as children. He thinks of poor Paul Hopkiss. He must not be the only one who thinks of those who are missing: the mood of the gathering is downbeat, edge and tense.
Titus Mortmaigne seems tired rather than tense. He’s cut his hair since James last saw him. In fact, he looks very dressed-up: silk handkerchief in his pocket, neat cufflinks, and a little diamond tie pin, of a piece with Briony’s earrings. “James,” he says, though they’ve never been on Christian-name terms.
“My lord,” James says. He doesn’t actually know Titus’s current title.
“Oh, let’s not,” Briony interrupts, clearly distressed. “With the—“
But Titus says, “It’s important to give things their right names. Though of course you may call me Titus. Can I get you a drink?”
James accepts a thin-stemmed flute. The champagne smells strong, and he’s struck by a vivid memory of touching Scarlett’s wrist beneath the canopy of a white party tent. “How’s your sister?” he asks recklessly. “Still in Tunisia, or wherever?”
Titus makes a noncommittal sound. “It seems she’s determined to stay well away from here. Maybe she’s wise. She always used to say our family was cursed.” His eyes slide away, darkening. “I thought she was being melodramatic, when I was a kid. Funny, now, when you think about it.”
“Are things really so bad?”
“The trial nearly bankrupted us. We thought we’d have to sell the house. Fortunately—“ He pauses, lips tightening. “Other provisions had been put in place.”
James has the sense suddenly that others are listening to their conversation, heads tilting subtly towards them round the room. The temperature has chilled. He hears the house creaking softly, or imagines that he does. It’s an old house; there are sometimes noises in it, noises that don’t seem to come from anywhere. They used to frighten him when he was a child. He was convinced the sound was animals scurrying in the walls— animals from Mediaeval bestiaries and the margins of illuminated manuscripts, skinny and winding, all teeth and weird eyes, nothing that had ever existed.
“Let me show you the pictures,” Briony says abruptly, shifting. She looks strained. Perhaps she’s aware of the attention on them. She seems eager to get out of the room, and he understands the impulse.
He follows her to the small parlour where a group of paintings have been laid out. Some are tiny, and some come in great gilt frames. They seem to have been scattered about in quite a haphazard manner: tilted against sofas and tables without consciousness of danger. Anyone could come along and put a foot through a canvas, and James is fairly sure that at least one of the paintings is a Millais. He sees a Waterhouse, and another that he knows is Samuel Palmer: The Foothills with the Comet Visible by Night, 1828. He’s always slightly feared the painting, with its faint aura of danger, the comet trailing dread through its blue-black watercolour sky. It had hung in the east wing staircase when he was a boy.
Briony is still standing in the doorway. “Everything’s been divided up. Over there—“ she waves a hand towards the adjoining study— “are the ones that are meant to stay in the Mortmaigne family; then the ones that’ll go to Sotheby’s. These are the ones for the people who lived on the estate. He had it all set up; he’d made lists; he’d thought through everything. Everything.” —Her face expressionless now; her hand going to the faint scars on her wrist.
Hathaway wants to speak, wants to offer her some comfort, but his mouth is as stopped as it’s ever been. He turns towards her. Their eyes meet, and they regard one another in mute and far-off comprehension. Two ships signalling from very distant sides of the sea.
“Why are you doing this?” he asks her. “It doesn’t seem like a great idea to just—“
“Well,” she interrupts shortly, “once it’s done, it’ll be done. Closure. You know.”
It doesn’t seem likely to bring closure. There’s clearly something she’s not saying. But James can’t quite figure out how to ask what it is, not through all the silences that seem imposed upon them. The lacunae like wounds, like trap doors, like sinkholes forcing lengthy reroutes: detour here.
“Take your time,” Briony says. “Choose any one you like. I thought—” She pauses, pressing her lips together. “I did want to talk to you. Alone. I thought— you could meet me in the summer house, later?” He must show his surprise. She smiles: false and very brittle. “Oh, why look like that? It’s just a place, isn’t it?”
“All right,” James says, though he feels uneasy. “I’ll meet you there.”
She smiles again and leaves him in the cluttered little parlour. At sea, he picks his way through the room. He doesn’t really want any of these paintings, and they’re worth tens of thousands of pounds. More, maybe. He can’t believe that the family is giving them away. An apology, he thinks, or a reward, to those who kept their mouth shut— though even that, as a gesture, seems strange.
He pauses at a Rossetti sketch of a girl carrying flowers. It’s pretty, though it isn’t really what he likes. Then a Thomas Cooper Gotch scene of children with lanterns. These are pieces that remind him of nothing, which is important. And what would he do with a Waterhouse? Or, God forbid, something grander? Give it to Lewis, maybe, for a laugh.
Out of curiosity, he glances at the door to the study, which is standing ever-so-slightly open. He’s wondering which paintings were deemed too grand for the servants— not good enough to sell, but too good for anyone but a Mortmaigne. He can see a glimpse of something that he thinks is a Turner seascape, all swirls of light and shadow. He prods at the door with a fingertip. He’d quite like to see a Turner up close, outside a museum. He doesn’t remember ever seeing one at Crevecoeur.
The contents of the study are puzzling, however. There is the Turner, impeccably lovely, like looking at the earth through the eyes of a cloud, and a small Monet propped against a vase of flowers. But there are also minor pieces that don’t seem like they’d be worth much at all. A Herbert James Draper study of Icarus falling. A portrait of a dark-haired woman with a songbird on her shoulder, unsigned by the artist, in a style he doesn’t recognize. Something familiar in a corner— he has to move an astrolabe to see it— a painting that had once hung over a desk in the upstairs library.
James had spent half his life in that library: rainy days reading Tolkien and Tennyson and C.S. Lewis, poring with gruesome fascination over Mandeville’s Travels, over massive volumes of the saints’ lives and deaths. He remembers it vividly: the pale light through the window and the scent of leather, the blessed stillness away from the grasping woods. He’d worn glasses then, big glasses with heavy lenses. Too much reading, his father had said. Ruins your eyes. No good for you. But with them on, the whole world had swum into focus. Here was the real and ordered world, the lovely and sensible world he had longed for. Here it was, clear at last in the pages of his books.
And over him all the while, this painting. He had remembered it, confusingly, as an angel in a garden, perhaps thinking of John Stanhope’s Why seek ye the living among the dead, but that isn’t it. There isn’t an angel at all, but a more alien figure: luminous and otherworldly, but without religious implication. She— he? it?— is standing in an English garden that looks very much like the garden at Crevecoeur. Her hand points towards a green wall that might be a line of rosebushes. Vines tangle round broken statuary in the foreground, and a Bengal cat twines round the figure’s feet.
There is something eerie about the painting, though he had never thought so before. He’d expected it to be Christian, but it isn’t at all Christian. The Pre-Raphaelite style is matched to something definitively other, an element that’s almost surrealist in tone. It is familiar and unfamiliar to him, intimate and also unquietingly foreign, a dream he half-remembers having that grows stranger with the recalling. And it’s mine. It’s mine, he thinks. He can’t imagine why it should have been earmarked for the Mortmaignes when it is so obviously the single piece in all this house he is meant to take.
Stealthily, glancing over his shoulder to ensure no one else is in the room, he gets ahold of the painting. It is fairly lightweight. He easily carries it into the other room and studies it in the stronger light. Surely no one will know if he… ? Briony had said Augustus Mortmaigne made the lists. It’s possible that no one would notice. And James isn’t inclined to do as Augustus Mortmaigne had wanted.
So that’s how he steals a Pre-Raphaelite painting: casually tucking it under his arm, ducking into the party to nab another quick flute of champagne, and then walking out of the house without so much as a by-your-leave.
Buoyed by this escapade, he fairly strides across the lawn, his long legs eating up the slow green slope. Autumn is settling visibly over the lake before him, already beginning to be dappled with coins of leaves. Bulrushes are coming thick up through the sluggish water where no one has got round to pruning them. The afternoon light is tawny. James can smell the end of summer as he rounds the lakeside. Though maybe there are other reasons that he’s thinking of decay as he spies the place where Linda Grahame’s body had once been interred. Thou hast made me, and shall Thy work decay? Well, yes. Bodies move through time in no other manner. Bits falling off them in pieces. Leaves, like the things of man. The larger work goes on, in graves both known and secret, where blood rots in to the earth and flesh comes off the bones. He has to believe that. God in the entrails. God in the worms and beetles. God in the little fly-eggs. God in Dr. Hobson’s trays.
God in Augustus Mortmaigne, maybe. In the bone-coloured stones of his summer house, still beautiful, still fragrant with urns of white flowers. God. Briony sitting on the polished piano bench.
“Hello,” she says. “Oh, good; you found a painting you like.”
“Do you still play the piano?” James asks her, curious, eyeing the stiff line of her posture.
“Do you like it?”
“I do like it.”
“I don’t any longer. The piano, I mean.”
She stands abruptly and moves away from the instrument. She’s shed her high heels and is barefoot on the stone floor, pacing without real purpose. She stops at one of the ornamental tables, lifting a framed photograph. A little dark-haired girl, her likeness. “The police took these, and I thought, At least they’re gone. I didn’t have to decide what I wanted to do with them. But they brought them back.” She sets the frame down; moves to another table. Lifts another. Hathaway, Scarlett, and Paul on the hall steps. Puts it down quickly. Another. “This one’s you.” A fair boy with large thick dark-framed glasses. He’d had a comically owlish look even then.
He reaches out and Briony passes him the picture. The frame is heavy. For a moment he studies it. He wonders if anyone recognized him: the constables, Lewis. There are so few people left who knew him then. He doesn’t like the idea of the photo out there, being looked at. Photographs, too, are the things of man. Part of the body. There is an uncomfortable power in them.
“Can I keep this?” he asks.
Briony shrugs. “It’s your photo. I would’ve thought you’d have taken it when the police had it.”
“I was taken off the investigation.” He studies her face. The careful traces of cosmetics, the soft contour of her cheekbones, the every-so-often traitorous flinch of a small muscle to the left of her jaw. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“You know.” She knows; she must. “I didn’t tell them. I couldn’t say it. I don’t know why. I’ve never known why.” It had been almost like a physical defect. He would start to speak and his speech would go off at an angle. No matter his intentions, no matter how the sentences he imagined, the words never managed to pass his lips.
Briony traces the edge of the table with a lacquered nail, meditative. “Did you ever notice how often girls in fairy stories get cursed into silence? When they open their mouths, other things come out. Roses. Diamonds. Toads. Wasps. Really unpleasant, don’t you think? I used to think about it a lot.”
“Being under an enchantment?”
She tilts her head, unspeaking. Her eyes are like a physical weight on him. He has that same sense of something suppressed, something buried. Bones beneath a statue, bodies in wells, bodies in cisterns; a child’s body he’d held in his hands, raising it up out of the Lethean waters. How much sometimes we would like to not remember. He shivers. Something moves, quick and cold, under his skin. Fish-like. It makes him dizzy, reminds him of the fish out in the lake, turning and turning in their unseen prison. Kept for one purpose. Toys for the taking. Poor fish, James thinks. Poor, poor fish.
The thought makes him glance out through the doorway, down to where the lake is gleaming, and for an instant he sees something strange about it: a writhing and translucent aspect to the water, as though he can see straight down into alien depths. Depths that shouldn’t be there. Something wrong with the physics. It makes his flesh crawl; he doesn’t want to keep looking at it. Then he blinks: the lake is once again serene, autumnal.
Briony has moved away from the photos. She is toying with a white rose in the window vase. “All those girls lost in the woods, meeting witches and enchanters. I used to play with Ti out in Wytham Woods when we were kids. We got married; I mean we played at getting married. Funny, the things kids think of to do.”
“Funny,” James echoes. He feels half-awake: slow, heavy, muddled. “Scarlett and I did as well. Coincidence.”
“Coincidence. Yes.” She isn’t looking at him, now; she’s gazing out the window. She seems, suddenly, very far away. “Really I meant to tell you— it’s why I wanted to speak to you. Titus and I are— he’s asked me to marry him. I mean, not just asked. I’ve said yes.”
“Oh.” Stupidly, he doesn’t know how to respond. “That’s… Congratulations.”
“You don’t have to sound so enthusiastic.”
“No, I’m happy for you, it’s just— you’re quite young.”
“His mother was seventeen when she married.”
And look how that turned out, James wants to say. “Lady Briony,” he says instead, experimental. “Lady Tygon?”
She smiles nervously. “I expect I’ll get used to it.”
“Have you set a date?”
“We thought: soon. Late October. Just a registry office.”
“Strange time for a wedding,” James observes.
“Why waste time, now it’s decided? Better to get it done.” It seems like a very odd thing to say. Briony must realize, because she rushes on. “I— we want to get away as soon as possible. Travel. We aren’t planning to stay here.”
“That sounds like it’s for the best.” He manages a small smile. After all, what does he know? Perhaps she’ll be happy. She deserves to be happy. Perhaps she’ll be the one to pull it off. “I’m happy for you. Really. Congratulations.”
Briony crosses the room. Her bare feet turn her plain and coltish. Hathaway can almost see the shadow of the awkward girl she’d been. He wants to tell her— so many things, really, whole torrents of words that will forever stay sewn shut behind the curse on his lips. He wants to tell her how to escape. But he doesn’t know himself, on some deeper level. He knows all the facts and all the theories. He has heard and said all the right things. He has had a new song put into his mouth. But still some rigid part of him won’t reveal a living centre. A stone heart at which he chips and chips in vain, trying to free a creature whose form he can’t envision.
“Thank you,” Briony murmurs, touching his arm for a moment. “For— everything. I don’t blame you. I hope you know that. I want you to have a good life, James.”
It’s so final an admonition that he finds himself leaving without questioning why it’s what she’d chosen to say. He sits in his car with the painting in the seat beside him, feeling stunned and confused. Everything that has happened since morning seems dream-like. But there is the painting as evidence, and there the photograph: his child’s-eyes and his child’s-mouth, solemn; the slightly defiant tilt of his chin. He remembers the era before he got those glasses: to see at a distance, he had to squint. Mysterious landscapes loomed up around him, slow to decipher and hard to understand. Sometimes the truth is not hidden; it doesn’t have to be. It prowls on bold legs openly through the forest, confident that you can look and look and never catch a glimpse of it.
Back at his flat, James props the painting on his sofa and sits at the edge of the coffee table, staring at it. He had thought that outside the haunted ambience of Crevecoeur, it would turn ordinary. But it hasn’t. The otherworldly figure in the garden is just as strange. Its red robe is embroidered with rambling white roses. Its hair is like thistledown, and its wings are flame-coloured, a sort of shimmering, almost-moving, pale yellow flame. Or— like leaves, he thinks. Birch leaves in autumn, turned spidery and brittle, with a ragged, half-decomposed quality to them. Not a nice thought, really.
The more he studies the scene, the more he sees stripes instead of spots on the Bengal cat. It seems larger than he had first taken it for. It eyes him with lazy suspicion.
Eventually he turns the painting against the sofa cushions, and goes to smoke a cigarette. He feels— disquieted. He doesn’t want this piece of Crevecoeur so near him, a crack in his home that leaks unease. At the same time, he finds himself possessive. He doesn’t want to lose it. It’s his; it’s his own; he has to keep it safe.
An option occurs: he’d thought jokingly, earlier, Give it to Lewis. But in fact he knows that Lewis would accept the thing, simply because James had asked him to take it. And he thinks— if there is any place so ordinary that the painting would lose its power, stop being spooky and start being a simple painting again, it would be the warm domestic confines of the house that Lewis shares with Hobson.
He’s meant to be having dinner with them, at any rate. They invite him every Sunday, thinking— presumably— that he needs feeding up, or that he’s far too lonely. He knows they worry about him. He doesn’t know how to reassure them. And he likes those dinners, where he doesn’t have to play at being normal. Lewis and Hobson fondly tolerate his alienness.
So when he goes, he takes the painting with him, and after a brief pause, he takes the photograph as well. He doesn’t know why, but it feels right, so he does it. In for a penny, in for a pound— is that the saying? But he doesn’t feel like as casual as the phrase suggests. He feels touched by sourceless panic, and superstitious.
“What on earth have you brought me?” Lewis asks.
He’s wearing a horrible souvenir apron that reads ON THE SIXTH DAY GOD CREATED MANchester. Lyn must have given it him. He wipes his hands on a tea towel while examining the painting, which Hathaway has leant against the sofa.
“Anyone can buy a bottle of wine,” Hathaway says, deadpan. “I wanted to make myself memorable.”
“Thoughtful of you. I do sometimes get you confused with other people. Thought it was old age.”
“They say the mind goes first, sir.”
“Yeah, yeah. Shut it, you.”
This customary exchange of insults completed, James grins and accepts a glass of wine. He still feels all angles and elbows in this house, too tall and too sharp and too much, always conscious of his excessiveness, as though he might break the furniture simply by existing. But he’s learning to mind the feeling less. He wonders if Lewis and Hobson are training him— how much they guess, how much they plan their gentle acceptance. He should mind more than he does; he’s not a stray dog. But he—
When he thinks too hard about it, panic rises in his chest. So instead he doesn’t let himself think. He clears his throat and sips his wine.
“I take it this is the painting you mentioned,” Lewis says— not a police consultant for nothing. “But why is it here?”
“I didn’t want it in my flat.” James thinks he almost certainly doesn’t have to say more— Lewis would look at him with cautious eyes, and nod, and very carefully change the subject. But James wants to say more, wants Lewis’s guarded opinion, an outsider’s view on a narrative that now feels like a dream. “Briony Grahame is marrying Titus Mortmaigne,” he says abruptly— not quite sure of where else to begin.
Lewis frowns. “Bit young, isn’t she?”
“Still, she gets to make her own choices.” Lewis tilts his head, eyeing James. “But there’s something you don’t like.”
James says nothing. He sinks down onto the sofa. In Lewis’s cheerful little house, with Laura clattering in the kitchen, he finds he doesn’t know how to explain the eeriness of the wake— the eavesdropping strangers— the twisting water in the lake, and the dead breath of the Hall— Briony talking of fairy tales, and the tomb-like summer house— Lewis, he thinks, doesn’t have the capacity to imagine such things. Lewis’s world comes with boundaries: real and unreal, truth and fiction, waking and dreams. Lewis’s world doesn’t shift in this nauseous way, the rules changing as you go.
Finally, he reaches into his coat pocket and fetches out the photograph of himself. “She gave this to me,” he says, tilting it absently in the lamplight. “She took me down to the summer house and said… some worrying things.”
Lewis peers at the photo. “Quite a pair of specs you had on you,” he remarks. Then waits neutrally, patiently for James to figure out a way to speak.
James run a hand through his hair. Frustrated. “Something’s happening; I can feel it. Something isn’t right. Something’s happening that I don’t understand.”
“And you don’t think you’re…?”
“Too close? Too—“ He wants to say fucked-up, but he won’t say it, not in front of Lewis. “Sometimes you have to be close enough to something to see it.”
“No; I know that.” Lewis studies James, then studies the photo— as though finding points of comparison, or, more likely, merely thinking. “Anything you can put your finger on?”
“No. No.” James pushes at his hair again, then shoves the photo jerkily at Lewis. “Will you keep this for me? I know it’s a strange thing to ask. And the painting. It’s just, I can’t help thinking— there’s something important about them.”
Lewis eyes him quizzically, clearly uncomprehending, but says only, “All right. If that’s what you want.”
“Could do with a bit of art— class the place up. Mind you, I don’t know what Laura’ll say. It’s a bit— well, creepy, isn’t it, this painting?” Lewis faces the painting squarely, inspecting it with a frown.
“Do you think so?” James mirrors his pose, standing beside him.
“It’s like one of those old paintings where everything’s got a secret meaning. Flowers, animals, the way that folk are dressed—it’s all part of a code. You have to look it up in a book to make sense out of it. At least, I do. Is that meant to be Crevecoeur, do you think?”
James had wondered, when he saw the painting in the study. The thought had never occurred to him as a child, but now as he looks at the scene’s layout— the clearly defined contours of the maze, the hint of the Hall to the left, in the distance, a familiar stone urn under a birch tree— he’s amazed that he could ever have failed to see it. “I don’t know. I suppose it must be.”
“Strange thing to commission. Makes me feel a bit seasick to look at.”
For a moment, James thinks that, against his expectations, Lewis will see, will really see, will understand the aura of wrongness and ask the right questions. But what would the right questions even be? He himself doesn’t know. They are vague and formless, insubstantial. And, anyway, in the next moment, Hobson’s bustling into the room, saying, “James, sorry, I swear I didn’t let him near anything that needs more than microwaving; he just likes to pretend he’s master of the kitchen. How’ve you been?” And she kisses his cheek, and the uneasiness lifts, and he thinks it must be him that makes things seem so much stranger than they should be.
After dinner, when he is hazy with wine and heavy with butter chicken, and has sided with Hobson to— sputtering with choked-off laughter— condemn Lewis’s plan to volunteer for a role as auctioneer at the upcoming police fete (“You should’ve seen me when I ran the Wheel of Fortune!” Lewis reminisces. “I wore a cowboy hat and all!”), James has almost forgotten to be troubled.
Then, when Hobson excuses herself from the table, Lewis says, after a contemplative silence, “You know, you ought to run through some of the old records on the Mortmaignes. Morse worked a case out at Crevecoeur, back in the day. Odd business. He never mentioned it. I only found out meself when it came up during the trial. Seems to me there was more as well— something in the Seventies? Not sure if the police were involved, but you might check the papers.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” James says. “But thank you, sir.” He looks down at his glass, at the last of the wine: a pale, sticky inch.
The wind has picked up; it rattles at the shutters, restless. The nights are turning chillier now. It’s nearly October. On the way home, he sees stray leaves lift in an arc under a street lamp. Leaves, like the things of man. For an instant, they seem to form a shadow-coloured body that turns, its eyeless face fixing on him. Pareidolia: that’s what it’s called when you see patterns in nothing. The man in the moon. The Virgin on a piece of toast. Christ in a water stain. A perfectly natural synaptic misfiring. That’s all that it is.
But still he can’t sleep, later. He paces his flat, unsettled. There’s something he’s missing, he thinks, some piece of the world that he’s not seeing. The secret of the whole world. Chesterton. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front—
James and Maddox are midway through the paperwork on a murder investigation, so it’s a week before James can manage to pull up anything on the Mortmaignes. He does so on his lunch break, slightly surreptitious, not wanting to explain should any questions be asked.
The case that Lewis had mentioned is the easiest to locate: June, 1967. The computerized record is a bit mysterious, and James has to request the paper files. While he’s waiting for them to get pulled from the archive, he scans through the database for other hits, first for the name “Mortmaigne,” and then for “Crevecoeur.” He’s surprised by how many there are— but then, the Mortmaignes are a sprawling family, and Crevecoeur a sizable estate.
Some of the records ring a bell. The death of Lady Julia’s husband, Charles Coleman, in 1965— not treated as suspicious, though apparently the police had at some point been involved. A boy gone missing from the estate in ’72, Joe Bentham, and another, Martin Swinborne, in ’78— James remembers hearing about this, through the imperfect medium of urban legend. The Beast of Binsey, that had been the story. Juliet Danvers, all eyes alight and hushed tones: They ran away into the forest, and the Beast of Binsey found them, and it ate them up, all teeth and claws! James had gotten in trouble for telling this story at home. His father had slammed a glass down on the table and said, I don’t want to hear about it! The Beast of Binsey: sometimes a man and sometimes a tiger and sometimes the breath you thought you heard behind you in the depths of Wytham Woods. The stick that cracked, the tree that stirred, the touch that paralyzed you. Twenty-plus years later, the terror persists. James has to tear his thoughts away; force himself to fix his gaze back on the computer.
In 1984: the suspicious death of Lady Helen Mortmaigne. That hadn’t been at Crevecoeur; she and Sir Guy had lived in London, but James has a faint, vague memory of it. A funeral. He wasn’t allowed to go to the Hall; he’d moped around Lodge Farm, where he had already read all the books he owned. Apparently, the death had been treated as suicide.
So many deaths. He’s lost in thought, trying to make sense of it, and doesn’t notice Maddox in the office till she’s reading over his shoulder, stood right next to him.
“Mortmaigne,” she says. “I remember that. It was in all the papers. ‘The Curse of the Mortmaignes,’ ‘Fatal Family Past of Paedo Peer.’ Quite a saga.”
“Not that I read the tabloids.” She perches on the edge of his desk. “What’s this got to do with?”
James doesn’t answer the question. He stares into the distance, toying idly with a pencil. “What did they say? The tabloids that you don’t read?”
Maddox shrugs. “Just— you know. Lots of tragic deaths. Lewis was on that case, wasn’t he? Couple of murders. Then, of course, the first wife— I always thought it seemed convenient, her dying like that, to make way for the new one. She’d been, what, the fourth person in the family to die within a few decades? Suspiciously, I mean. Then the business with the tiger—“
“The what?” James drops the pencil. It clatters to the floor.
“The tiger! In the Sixties. I can’t believe you didn’t read about this.”
He’d avoided anything to do with the Mortmaignes, after the case. He hadn’t wanted to read. He hadn’t wanted to know. Seeing the headlines had made him feel sick. Now a different queasiness spreads through his belly. He isn’t sure, for a moment, whether he’s dreaming. The tiger isn’t real. It belongs to his childhood, to that other world where he can’t unpick truth and fiction, where fears are real and the landscape seems to lurch and pitch. If you break your oath to a Mortmaigne…
“I think it ate a girl,” Maddox says, with an air that suggests she’s amazed by her own statement. “At least, they never found her body.”
The file from the archive, when it arrives, appears to confirm this. James flips through it: the disappearance of Ingrid Hjort, the deaths of Ricky Parker and Hector Lorenz, the arrest of Lady Georgina Mortmaigne. The tiger. The tiger. Stalking the maze, prowling its territory. Shot by a copper, or so the file claims. James fingers a faded witness statement. The typed name on the top of the paper: Philip Hathaway. He’d never spoken about it. What had he known? What had he remembered, that he couldn’t speak of? This, like so much of his father, is lost to James.
He takes the file home and rereads it by lamplight. There is a black-and-white photo of the tiger’s cage, but of the tiger itself: nothing. As though it hadn’t really existed.
Sometime past midnight, his mobile rings. When he picks it up, there’s silence. The same silence as before, crackling and strangely distant, punctuated with static.
“Hello?” he says.
Nothing. The echo of music, far away and creaky. The same Schubert sonata: a solitary piano, fading in and out of range.
“Hello?” James says again. His spine is thrumming with tension. The hair of his body stands on end. “Is someone— is there something you want to tell me?”
The thread of a voice. The faintest whisper. “James?”
“Scarlett?” He knows the dark and melancholy timbre of that voice.
“James?” As though the connection’s bad and she can’t quite hear him. “James, don’t. You have to stay away.”
“Scarlett, where are you?” Not Tunisia, he thinks. Not Tunisia. Someplace farther.
“You have to stay away. I tried, I tried to…” Static. Her voice rises and falls in the background, inaudible.
A noise like a rising windstorm drowns out her voice. He hears a series of clicks. The line goes dead.
James tries to trace the call, of course, but it never existed. No call. No record. That’s what Vodafone says.
“Do you ever worry you’re going mad?” he asks Zoe, when they meet for coffee the next weekend.
She considers the question, not seeming overly concerned. “One of my therapists once asked me that. She said, Do you ever worry about going mad? Statistically, it happens quite often. To people like you and me, she meant. Outliers.”
“I hope you fired her.”
“Mum did. I used to tell Mum things like that. I thought we had no secrets.” She traces the rim of her coffee cup, her face closing for a moment. “I didn’t ever worry, though. When Dad died— maybe a little. Just because… it was so hard to say anymore what was true. Everything seemed mad. But it was mad. It was completely… And eventually I realized I had to go on living in a world where mad things were true. Once I’d come to terms with that, things got better.”
“I think that’s a very healthy perspective.”
“Why are you afraid you’re going mad?”
James stares down at the table, tracing shapes in a ring of condensation. “I don’t know if I can really tell you.”
“Why not? Is it a secret? Could you tell a priest? A priest won’t think you’re mad. They believe in miracles and so on, don’t they?” Zoe knows that James trained to be a priest once. It’s always seemed to fascinate her for some reason. She brings it up a lot. He suspects she’d quite like a faith of her own, but doesn’t know how to go about the practise of belief.
“No. It’s not like that,” he says. “More like—“ he remembers Briony talking of witches and enchanters, curses and silence— “a fairy story. A lot of things that don’t quite seem to fit together in a way that makes any sense.”
“Well,” Zoe says, very matter-of-fact, with girlish assurance, “can’t you tell it to me like a fairy story? As though it weren’t about you. ‘Once upon a time.’ There. I’ve got you started.”
James contemplates this tactic. Is that what Briony had been trying? Girls in fairy stories, cursed to silence. Roses and diamonds in their mouths. Toads ands wasps. How else can one talk about it, talk around the proscription? He sighs heavily. setting his coffee cup down. “I’ll need a cigarette. Possibly more than one.”
When they exit the coffee shop, he abruptly starts walking. Nervous energy. No direction. Zoe doesn’t comment, but keeps pace with him as he lights a cigarette and inhales with force.
“Once upon a time,” he says haltingly, “there was another country, and very strange things happened there. The country was ruled by a evil king who stole away children, and made them swear an oath to his court. I feel absolutely ridiculous saying this, I hope you realize.”
“Just keep talking,” Zoe orders him.
“Every so often people would die or go missing. Not just children from the estate; sometimes people from the— court. And then the police came— I don’t know what the equivalent of the police is in fairy stories— and thought they’d stopped it. And the evil king lost all his power and died. But strange things still happened. Everyone seemed to be under an enchantment. They couldn’t talk about what was happening. There was a monster that turned out to be real. One of the children seemed to think she still belonged to the court, and she talked like she was going to go away. Go missing.” He thinks about Briony again. I want you to have a good life, James. “Or— die, maybe. None of this makes any sense, does it?”
“It is like a fairy story,” Zoe says, sounding enraptured.
“I’m so happy that I can entertain you.”
“No; it’s helpful, that’s all. Fairy stories have lots of rules. Once you’ve figured out the rules, you understand why things happen. How often do people in this story go missing?”
James thinks about it. Linda Grahame, Lady Jacinta, Lady Helen. The two boys from the estate. Did Ingrid Hjort count? And then there was Charles Coleman. “Every seven or eight years, I suppose. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Less, recently, but the family’s been in decline.”
“And tell me about the children.”
“Musical. Gifted.” James stares unseeing ahead. “Vulnerable, I suppose. Loyal.” It’s started raining: a fine drizzle. He hadn’t noticed.
“Mm. Yes. That’s the sort they like.”
James feels his eyebrows arch, incredulous. “They? Who’s ‘they’?”
“The fairies, of course,” Zoe says impatiently, as though he’s being quite stupid. “Oh, honestly. Don’t you know anything about folklore?”
“Apparently not.” James feels the need to point out: “You can’t be serious.”
“Why not? We’re talking about fairy stories. You don’t have to worry about whether or not it’s true. You only have to worry about whether it makes sense.” She looks at him with absolute determination, the kind of double-barrelled honesty she’s always turned on him, and which has always made him feel inadequate and brittle. “Truth is awfully flexible to use as a level, don’t you think? In my experience.”
He doesn’t know what to say to that. As a policeman, he thinks— The truth, what else is there? Policework is a long slow act of excavation, trying to reconstruct a long-lost scene of truth: piecing together the pottery shards, the grave goods, the painted frescoes. At the same time some element always eludes them. A unifying factor, some breath of the Real that would never again be in the room. James thinks this when he looks down at the bodies. When he holds the bodies in his arms, dead or nearly dying (a leaf-weight girl with her skin gone cold, hair peeling off her scalp, hair the colour of sundown, and God, he can’t bear, still can’t bear to think about it) he knows that something’s gone forever. Heat goes to cold. You will weep and know why. The elusive truth.
So he says, “I’ll suspend my disbelief for the moment. Tell me about folklore.”
Zoe frowns. “Well, for one thing, fairies are always stealing children away. They catch the best and the brightest and take them away to their courts. Sometimes they give them gifts, and sometimes curses, so that even if they come back into the human world, they’re never quite the same. And sometimes they still belong to the fairies, and get taken back in the end. In ‘Tam Lin,’ the fairy court have to send someone to Hell every seven years, on All Hallow’s Eve, and they’re going to send a human knight, because the Queen of Fairies owns his soul, but then his girlfriend saves him. It’s quite a feminist story; at least, I think so.”
James stares down at the pavement, wreathed in exhaled smoke.
Zoe adds thoughtfully, “I remember reading a story where a fairy cursed everyone to silence. If they tried to speak about being under an enchantment, they’d just tell mad stories, or else always say the wrong thing. I don’t know if that helps or not.”
“As much as any of this does.” He taps his cigarette, watching the stray ash flutter like snow.
“James,” Zoe says, hesitant. Her voice is oddly uncertain. He can hear the quaver of childishness. He hasn’t heard that in a long time. She’s a young woman now. But every so often she wavers between ages: not quite old, not quite young, as she’s always been. “I don’t think I’ve seen you so— troubled, I suppose. Are you going to be all right?”
“I’m fine.” The phrase is almost an autonomic reflex. “Just— worried about someone.”
“You don’t have to save everyone. You couldn’t, even if you wanted.”
“I know,” James says. “But this one. This one I have to save.”
She doesn’t ask why, and he’s grateful. He doesn’t want to explain it. He isn’t sure she could understand, in any case. She’s smart, but she’s not wise; not yet. And so much of her life has been happy. It’s possible she’s never had cause to reflect that what we can’t save in ourselves, we try to save in others. Why is that? Transference, perhaps. Or we see ourselves as still connected to our past incarnations, the long-ago little things that once lived in our flesh. The potentials, the ghosts, the plants that we unrooted. We wish them well. We wish them the life we couldn’t give them. They never stop feeling a part of us still: our lost children, our phantom limbs.
James discusses this with Hobson without quite meaning to. That Sunday night at dinner, he’s gone out in the back garden to smoke— really to sit beneath the pergola and think. Sometimes he does feel narrowed in that little home— pressured, nervous. There are so many normal things he doesn’t know how to do. Like a pelican in the wilderness, a little owl of the desert, a lonely sparrow on the housetop. It’s exhausting. He suspects that Lewis sees this and tries to quieten him, cautious, never quite sure how he should deal with James-the-stranger. But this time it’s Hobson who comes out and sits beside him, carrying a glass of wine and wearing a cardigan.
Inside, they’d been talking about a case Lewis is involved in: the death of a middle-aged woman, a mother and a wife. James thinks it was an accident (death by drowning). Lewis wants it to be murder, wants there to be meaning. Someone to blame, someone to punish, someone who’ll offer restitution. But it doesn’t work like that. Or rather, James can’t say what he’s actually thinking, which is that there is meaning, but it is beyond all human comprehension. He remembers Lewis saying, so long ago, his voice tense with disgust, God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform— all that mumbo-jumbo? For Lewis, the idea offers no consolation. Sometimes it doesn’t, either, to James.
Hobson sits in silence for a while, companionably, before she says to James, “He didn’t use to be like that. In the old days, it was always Morse. He liked to make out that he was mostly interested in crimes as puzzles, but I always saw right through him. I think he had so little in his life— he had a sort of need to preserve others. To save anything that seemed precious to him.”
James stays quiet. He thinks Hobson would say that he too has little in his life. The thought is surprisingly hurtful to him, but he can’t really dispute it. “That’s the job, I would’ve thought.”
“One has to have limits.” She pauses long enough for him to perceive the admonition. “You’ve been very distant, lately.”
“Oh, you know. Work.”
“Something to do with the Mortmaignes?”
He looks down quickly. He wonders how much Lewis has told her. “It’s nothing. Just— tying up loose ends.”
Her kind eyes are on him: sympathetic, careful. “You know that we’re always here for you to speak to.”
She makes it sound so simple. Perhaps it is, for other people. One speaks, and one is understood. Not this tangle of inexpressible emotions, impulses and aches, physical terrors of things half-real. If a lion could speak… James is no lion. Still, he feels a certain kinship with the animals of the world, with their wild lives forever incommunicable to man.
His mobile rings at night with calls from an unknown number, and he doesn’t answer it. He doesn’t want that ghost-voice in his ear.
He makes lists of the Crevecoeur disappearances, the mysterious deaths at their neat intervals. Pulls up microfiche records of the Oxford Mail, puzzling through them for some clue, some key missing piece that will bring the story clear. Zoe emails him a PDF of The Compleat English and Scottish Popular Ballads, with scribbled notes and exclamation points flagging where he ought to read: variations of “Tam Lin,” “Thomas the Rhymer,” “True Thomas.” He pages through, parsing the outdated language— tricky, but not as tricky as paleographic exercises— and then has to stand and pace his flat, disquieted.
When I was a boy of seven years
And much was made of me,
I went out to my father's garden,
Fell asleep at yon aple tree:
The queen of Elflan she came by
And laid her hands on me.
That’s how they get hold of you, in these sorts of stories. There’s no escape, after that. And every seven, eight, nine years— depending on the ballad— they sacrifice one of their number. Why? For power, perhaps. For wealth and power. Out of fear of death.
He thinks of the writhing water. The tiger in the maze. His memories, twisting. White roses and the suffocating odour of rot. He’d always felt that something in the woods had seen him, seen the handprints on him, the marks that nobody else could see. The laying-on of hands. Not the Holy Spirit. Some other force had marked him with its sign. Was that one reason he had longed for ordination? So that he would be anointed. Clean hands would cover those old marks. Renew within him the spirit of holiness. In some secret part of his consciousness, had he always known?
You don’t have to worry about whether or not it’s true, Zoe had said. You only have to worry about whether it makes sense.
He calls Briony more than once, and gets no answer. Hi, this is Briony Grahame, announces her voicemail recording. I will be out of the country from the end of October. Please leave a message, and I’ll get back to you when I can.
On the thirtieth of October, he comes home late from band practice, balancing a pizza and his guitar and a bottle of whiskey, to find Titus Mortmaigne lingering in his building doorway.
“I believe we have something to discuss,” Titus says. He looks quite sinister in his stylish felt coat and scarf.
James sets his guitar down. It’s cold, and he’s wearing nothing heavier than a hooded sweatshirt, but superstitiously, all the same, he doesn’t want to invite a Mortmaigne into his flat. Is Zoe’s talk of fairy stories getting to him? They have lots of rules, she’d said, but he doesn’t know them. He’s never known the rules for the Mortmaignes, at any rate. Fitting that they should be so tied up with tigers: something elegant and splendid that you want to approach, longing for proximity, discovering too late that to the tiger you are always only a dumb prey morsel.
“If you want to talk, we can talk here,” says James. “Perhaps you can start by telling me what’s really going on. What you’re doing with Briony.”
“And here I thought you’d worked it all out.” Titus has mastered the template-perfect aristocrat’s smirk. But there’s something not quite happy, not quite wavering behind it. “You’ve certainly been doing your research, haven’t you?”
“Briony. Tell me what you’re doing with her.”
“I want to marry her. I love her!” This last comes out raw enough that James expects it’s true, or true enough: for a given value.
"Just as Guy Mortmaigne loved his wife, I suppose. And Julia loved Charles Coleman.” And the boys, he thinks. The boys on the estate. Did someone love them?
“There’s nothing I can do!” Titus runs a hand through his hair. He looks, for a moment, terribly frightened. Easy to forget that he’s Briony’s age, only just an adult. “You don’t understand; it was never supposed to be her. It was supposed to be Paul Hopkiss. And then he went and— and that was no longer an option, and it was you, it should’ve been you, it was supposed to be you!”
James stares at him. “What do you mean?”
“You were the one who was supposed to— but she absolutely refused. I had to tell her, didn’t I, if she was going to be part of the family, but she couldn’t accept it. It would’ve been so much easier with Hopkiss; he wouldn’t have minded. He would’ve been happy to do it.”
Just barely, with considerable effort, James doesn’t hit him. When he thinks of Paul, he still thinks of a stuttering child whose face had had no shield against emotion, who had trailed James everywhere like an eager acolyte, and who had never learned how easy he was to love. “But I wouldn’t’ve,” he says levelly.
“You wouldn’t’ve liked it, maybe. But you’d have done it in the end. You wouldn’t have had a choice. Stealing the picture was a clever move— I didn’t think you had it in you— but there are ways around that. Except now she won’t have it; she’s got a fit of conscience. She insists it has to be her.”
James is already picking up his guitar, turning back towards his car. “Where is she? Is she at Crevecoeur? I want to speak with her, now.”
Titus tilts his head. His face now is blank, guarded. “What is it you think you’re going to do?”
“What you came here to get me to do, of course,” James says bitingly. He doesn’t like being manipulated. He especially minds being subject to such a very transparent attempt. “Or are you going to deny it?”
Titus doesn’t deny it. He stands beneath the building’s door-lamp, hands in his pockets, as James leaves. He doesn’t look unearthly. He looks like any other disaffected rich kid: clothes shouting expensive, lips pouting a little. But then, they had all looked so human. That had always been the trick.
The road to Crevecoeur is dark, and James thinks of Dante. Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura. Esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte. Sylvan meant savage in those primal woods. These are the woods he has known since childhood, acreep with shadows and predator-thick. The Beast of Binsey stalks them, with a taste for his blood. Other things that have had a taste of him. The ghost of Linda Grahame, looking for her daughter. Ghosts of boys who were briefly and fatally loved. Nel pensier rinova la paura. In that very thought renews the fear.
His headlamps cut through the Oxfordshire night. This should seem far more ordinary than it is. But the crunch of gravel as he turns onto the drive up to Crevecoeur is like bones under the car-wheels. Everywhere the land seems imbued with death. An owl hunts: crescent of killing feathers for an instant. James thinks of taxidermied animals, ageless, all kept in little cases. Beautiful creatures. Beautiful. The stuffed skin of a lion in the Mortmaigne library. Augustus Mortmaigne, weaving flies out of pheasants’ wing quills.
The Hall, when he reaches it, is silent and dark. He looks out over the lawn, towards the summer house, where a wavering light is lit. His breath blows like smoke through the cutting air as he leaves the car and walks towards the lake. Frost in the grass breaks under his feet.
“Briony!” he calls as he nears the summer house steps. “It’s James Hathaway. I want to speak with you.”
She appears in the open doorway, looking pale-faced and startled. She’s wearing a blue parka zipped up over a pair of fleece pajamas, her hair in a frazzled ponytail. She looks about twelve years old.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she says fiercely, and then— reading the set of his face, perhaps— “Titus told you, didn’t he? It doesn’t matter; you have to go; you shouldn’t be here.”
James shakes his head. “You can’t really think I’d leave you to do— whatever it is you’re going to do. You’re going to get in my car, and I’m going to drive you back to Oxford.”
Briony shakes her head, pulling back as though he’s tried to reach for her. “You don’t know; you really don’t know; they’ll come and find us. It’s not like normal life. There aren’t the same rules.”
“I do know. I promise you, I’ll figure it out.”
She’s still shaking her head, shoulders trembling a little. “I’m sorry. I have to do this. It has to be me. It’s better if it’s me, honestly. I’ve thought really hard about it. You have a, a, a, a life— you have a job, and a flat, and you have people who love you, and I’m never going to have any of that— Ti tries, but he doesn’t, and— with my mum and my dad, I’m— I’m not like other people; I’m not going to have that kind of life. I’m never going to have a life, not like you!” Tears roll down her face, big pent-up silent tears.
“You will,” James says. The words hurt his throat. “I know you think you won’t. I know it doesn’t feel like it right now. But you’re so young, you’re so so young, and I promise that there is more than what you’re feeling. I promise, there is so much more. You can’t even imagine. A whole world.” God. How to explain the slow beatitude of time. The bells of Oxford counting hours and changes. Futurity in the stones that outlasted their builders. (The stone the builders rejected is become the cornerstone.) The whole human body, built to survive. “Do you believe me?”
Carefully, telegraphing his movements, he steps closer to touch her shoulder. She folds into his arms, clinging to him hard. For a moment he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t touch people that often. He strokes her unruly hair and the lumpy back of her parka, awkward, and that must be all right, because she sobs against his chest.
When it starts to seem the storm of tears has lessened a little, James pulls back a fraction. “Listen,” he says. “Here’s what’s going to happen, all right? You’re going to take my car. It’s parked up at the Hall. I’ll give you the keys. I want you to drive to Detective Inspector Lewis’s house, in Oxford.” He gives her directions, making her repeat them back. “Stay with him. You’ll be safe there. I promise. Tell him that Zoe Suskin knows what to do, and that he should call her.” He fishes his car keys out of his pocket. “Have you got all that?”
Briony nods, still breathless with crying. “But what about you? I can’t just leave you.”
“You’re not leaving me. You’re fetching the rescue party.” He smiles at her, encouraging. “I promise I have a plan. I’m a police officer, remember?”
As lies go, it’s pretty thin. But James imagines she’s hardly able to assess the statement. She’s a kid— in so many ways, she’s still a kid— and she wants so much to be comforted. She lets him tuck the keys to the car into her pocket and pull the hood of her parka up over her head, as though she’s headed out into the Arctic instead of just across Crevecoeur.
He doesn’t want her to go. He is, absurdly for a grown man, frightened. But he summons up a smile when she looks back at him for a moment, and then, when the car has hummed to life and ground away into the dark, he turns to face the piano-filled room with its white roses.
Selina Mortmaigne is standing there.
“For what it’s worth,” Selina says, casual and forcefully charming, “I really hoped it would be Paul. Not much of a loss, that one— obsequious is the term. But he had to go and get himself locked up, the stupid boy.” She’s dressed comfortably, in the manner of the super-rich: a mauve knitted jumper gone nubbly in the sleeves.
James folds his arms tightly across his chest. “I don’t want to talk about Paul. He’s safe where he is. And Briony. All you have to do is tell me what you need me to do.”
“Goodness. What a determined spirit of self-abnegation. You trained to be a priest, didn’t you? I wonder if it makes a difference. Probably not. We’ve been here for much longer than the Christians.”
James doesn’t take the bait. “Just,” he says. “Tell me.”
A touch of irritation shows in her demeanour. “So gloomy. Very well. I’ll take you down into the garden. It’s All Hallow’s Eve by now, I should think. That’s the best time for it. It loses power other times of the year, and I’m afraid we can’t do without quite a bit of power— we used up so much on my late husband and his bloody bank. Then the trial, of course. Such a lot of trouble!”
“My heart bleeds for you,” says James flatly.
He follows her out of the summer house, down the stairs, onto the lawn with its crackling cover of frost. When he’d arrived, the whole estate had seemed more-or-less deserted, but he sees now that this is not at all the case. There are torches stuck into the earth at intervals, burning with very pale yellow flames that don’t seem to emit any heat at all. In the black around the torches, shadows rustle and whisper like clusters of night-coloured insects or birds; or like, James thinks, unseen guests at a party: taffeta rasping, glasses clinking, heels clicking on floorboards. An oppressive noise. It seems to push him onwards, down the long slope of shorn grass, to where the overgrown bulk of the maze squatly sits.
Once it had been neat: a Classical nature designed and implemented by geometricians, with their own theory and practice. They seemed wary of the wild. They wanted it small and ornamental. They went amongst it with merciless shears, cutting it down into gearwheels for a watchmaker God.
But now nature has reared up, left unattended and perhaps looking to exact some revenge. The box hedge sprawls in a wide and rough tangle, taller even than James and extruding limbs that could just be— in the dark— bone fingers. Bone arms. The reaching, vanished Crevecoeur dead. Had there really been a tiger? Had it prowled this maze? If so, James can’t believe the police could have killed it. The police have no armaments appropriate to the battle. He pictures the tiger playing dead, then padding off in animal indifference to await other prey. Watching with lazy amber eyes for something smaller, prettier, more helpless.
He can sense, though he can’t see, his phantom spectators. He can feel them pressing forwards on him, willing him towards the place that he doesn’t want to go.
“Well,” Selina Mortmaigne says, still all off-handed sweetness, “here we are, James, dear. Into the maze with you. I’m sure Titus will tell Briony how very brave you were.”
Now that she’s said it, James can see Titus: a pale face in the shadows, looking cut into a mute and miserable mask. He hopes Titus won’t be telling Briony much at all. He hopes that Briony gets away from here. He wants her to have what he didn’t, couldn’t. He wills her the rest of his life, a bequest: be free.
“It’s just a shame, really, that Augustus couldn’t be with us,” Selina says. “He was always very fond of you, or so he told me.”
“I remember his fondness,” James says, and steps into the maze.
The Crevecoeur maze is old. It predates the work of William Kent, who redesigned the estate’s gardens in 1725. What did Kent make of the maze? He liked ruins. He liked lakes. He liked cascades and rivers. This severe geometry: not his kind of thing. What energy compelled him to avoid it entirely? Why leave this swathe of turf to the Enlightenment? Perhaps he felt that it was, after all, his kind of thing: sensed a wilderness clawing at leafy confines. Perhaps he made the mistake, one day, of wandering in and came out never-quite-the-same.
Children on the estate were told to avoid it. Easy, when the spectre of a tiger awaits. James himself had never been tempted to enter. The dense brush of leafgreen, its insurgency, had frightened him. He had dreamt about it growing over and through his body. Thin ropes of plant-wire piercing his flesh like sinister and unsacred stigmata. The living leaves scraping across his skin, so gentle. It wouldn’t hurt at all. It would be natural and perfect. But he would never be free or whole again. He held still in horror as the white roots crept out, extending their filaments long and thin till no part of him was not-touched entirely. This is what happens when you’re lost in a maze. This is what happens when you can’t get out of it.
He thinks of that dream now and rubs his forearms, nervous. The leaves of the box hedge sigh around him. It’s night, but he can see the sun rising over the leafline, or at least a lightening of the sky. That seems strange. It should be midnight, or only just after. But perhaps time doesn’t work the same way here. That seems as plausible as anything else does.
Birds are calling, as birds do at sunrise. Real birds, do we think, or not? The sound should comfort. It’s comforted James before, announcing— after sleepless hours— the break of day. Here, though, in the strange strengthening sun, it’s raucous. It seems somehow knowing. It lacks the inhuman cheerfulness of birds who sing simply because it’s dawn, needing no other nudge towards praise. Is that a very English thought? His landscape is domestic. He doesn’t live amongst dangerous things. And this place, he thinks— turning as he comes to a corner— is dangerous. It is dense and wild and unwelcoming.
And warm. He’s sweating now, as though it’s high summer. He strips off his sweatshirt and, after hesitating, drops it. He doesn’t really think he’ll need it again. He’s not coming out of this, is he? Underneath, he’s wearing a t-shirt from a 2003 Ensemble Unicorn tour. There are, he thinks, worse pieces of clothing to die in, though Lewis would probably laugh at him. Unicorn!
Thinking of Lewis hurts, because he wants Lewis here. James tries to focus instead on what comes next: the next turn, the next strange flood of light from the not-sun. The chatter of birds grows louder, and he can smell the scent of flowers. Big flowers, tropical flowers, lavish in their odours. When he turns again, they’re blooming everywhere he looks. Orchids. They grow wild there. Orange and purple. Opening and closing, like the chambers of hearts. Like they’ve got blood running through them. He remembers the buckthorn embedded in his palm. He’d thought the blood would never stop welling up.
His head feels hot, as though he’s caught a fever. He can hear children laughing somewhere close by. Waves are crashing, and he’s worried that they’ll run into the water, those children. All sorts of dangers in the water. Lures on the surface. A hook in the flesh. Poor, poor fish. But the voice of the Lord is upon the waters. The God of glory thunders. The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars. The voice of the Lord causeth the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare. Important to remember. Protect me, O Lord. The sea hath looked and fled. Does he deserve God’s mercy, after what he did to Will? Remember not the sins of my youth nor my transgressions. According to Thy steadfast love remember me.
Like charms, some of the Psalms. Maybe for just this situation. The Lord is thy keeper. The Lord is the shade at thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The sound of footsteps running. He’s thinking of tigers. He tenses.
It’s… Lizzie Maddox, coming round the next turning. James blinks.
“You’re not here,” he says uncertainly. His voice comes out rusty. He realizes that he badly needs a drink of water. His clothes are soaked in sweat. She, on the other hand, looks fresh as a daisy, albeit dressed in a t-shirt and jeans.
“I’m here,” she says. “Briony came and got us.”
For some reason, she’s reaching out to grasp hold of his hand, just as though he is a child that’s got lost in a forest and needs to be guided towards the road. He tries to jerk back; he resents the implication. “You’re not supposed to be here!” he says loudly. “I don’t need your help!”
“No offense, sir, but I think you do.”
James can’t seem to shake her grip off. He’s weak and dizzy; her nails dig into his wrists. “Why can’t you learn to stay out of things that don’t involve you? I didn’t ask for you to be here! Even when you were my sergeant, you were always turning up, shoving your way in, never what I wanted— never who I wanted—”
“I’m still your sergeant,” Maddox says steadily. “Someone’s got to be. If you’ll recall, they weren’t exactly lining up round the block.”
James shuts his eyes. He thinks there’s something wrong with his mouth. He can’t seem to stop the words. I don’t, he thinks wretchedly, I don’t mean them; I don’t mean them. But he knows that he cannot be sure. “I nearly got you killed; why would you stay? I can’t take care of you. I don’t want to. You’ll die, and it will destroy me, and I’ll blame you for it. And I’m a selfish bastard, and I can’t— stand it, so just, please, go away and leave me alone!”
Once more, he tries to break free. Once more, she won’t let him.
“I’m sorry. But I won’t do that. I have to hold onto you. That’s what Zoe said. So I won’t let you go,” she says. Her hands tighten unbearably upon him, hard and painful, and he makes a hurt sound, flinching against her, fighting that persistent grip, and— and—
And she’s gone, and he slams against the rocky dirt. Oof. Spitting particles of soil, his hands scraped and bleeding. The weather’s gone cold, and he suddenly shivers. People come and go so strangely here. And so do the seasons. The sedge has wither’d from the lake, or rather, the orchids have wilted on the box hedge. James can smell spring thunderstorms thick in the air, and the sky’s contused with clouds. Lightning quavers in the distance: thin and fleeting and fractal. Lightning flowers, they call the Lichtenberg burns when someone’s struck by lightning. (He’d had a case, once: suspicious death.) A slow root system of trauma. A contagion of rupture.
He picks himself up to his knees, wincing as his joints protest, inspecting his raw forearms. A little more blood shed to Crevecoeur’s earth. It doesn’t matter much now, surely. Time to keep walking. He stands.
The rain starts. It’s soft at first— then a heavy downpour. It soaks his clothing and slicks his hair to his head. He should feel clean, maybe, but he just feels cold. He wishes for his hooded sweatshirt back. He hugs his arms to his body and staggers forwards a few steps.
Zoe is waiting for him around the next turn. “James,” she says.
She doesn’t seem to be wet, even though she’s standing in the rainstorm. She reaches out and gently takes hold of his wrist. James stares at her, dumbly uncomprehending.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t really believe it. I know I told you, but if I’d really believed it I would’ve— I don’t know— I wouldn’t have sent you off alone.”
James says hoarsely, “You couldn’t have done anything. You’re just a kid.”
“I would’ve helped you.” She’s tugging him towards her a little, urging him forwards.
James digs his heels in. Resists. “Helped me? Why on earth would I want your help? You’re just a little girl who thinks she’s so, so clever. Haven’t you realized yet that I’m humouring you? You’re not my friend.”
Zoe’s face is expressive. She’s never had real defenses. He can see the hurt as his words hit home. “I know you don’t mean that,” she says. “I know it’s not really you. The Tam Lin ballad said you’d try to do this. Hurt me, I mean. I didn’t know how.”
“Of course I mean it!” Furious, he lashes out against her, trying to free his wrist from her hand. “Why would I be friends with you? You think you’re so mature, like you’ve suffered so much, just because one little thing happened, one family drama. Like you understand me. ‘Oh, James, you’re so clever, you’re so lonely.’ Like you know the first thing about it. But you don’t. You couldn’t.”
“No,” Zoe says shakily. “I know.” She’s welling up. She’s always been very quick to cry. “I’m sorry; I’m so sorry. If you want me to leave you alone really, when you’re— after, I mean— then I will, if that’s what you want, of course I will. But right now you’re under an enchantment. So I’m sorry, but I’m not going to let you go.”
“Enchantments aren’t real,” James says. He can feel himself sneering, as though the very idea is ridiculous.
The rainwater is rising up above his ankles. The soil here must be very thin. He’s close to the Cherwell. Sometimes the river does flood its banks. Under his feet, the soil sucks at his boot-soles, trying— greedy— to pull him downwards. He’s suddenly frightened; he wants to bolt. He can’t stay here with the water rising and rising.
But no matter how he tries to work himself loose, Zoe keeps ahold of his hand.
“It’ll be deserts next, I expect,” she says. “I think that’s the order. You can keep insulting me if you like. There’s nothing you can say that will make me give up.” Awfully bold, for a girl in the grip of weeping.
“I can’t stand you,” James says, vicious. “Look at you. Perfect Zoe. All you ever do is remind me of everything I wanted and didn’t have. I wish you would grow up and stop following me around like a dog!”
Her touch hurts him suddenly— her fingertips burning— and he swears sharply, biting his lip— tasting blood— tumbling into the floodwaters, gasping and fighting for breath— and—
And Zoe’s gone, and he’s shuddering on a strange bare shingle. The roar of the sea is strong around him, but though his clothes drip onto the pale sand and gravel, he sees no trace of water. Only the hedge on either side, now smelling of wild thyme and sea kale and broom flowers. The sun gleams very white and unforgiving. The pebbles intermixed with the sand look like the bones of old sea creatures.
James heaves himself upright. His wrists ache, and when he looks at them, he see they are ringed with fingerprint bruises. They have come up much faster than bruises should. “You’re hurting me!” he shouts, to no one in particular.
“I know,” Laura Hobson says, stepping forwards from the branch of a passageway. She takes his hands in her own, inspecting his wrists with the careful and clinical eye of a doctor. “I’m sorry. But we couldn’t just let you go. We had to do something.”
She gives him a reproving stare. “Honestly. Because we love you, you hopeless lug.”
James asks flatly, “Is that supposed to mean something to me? Because it doesn’t.”
Hobson pretends to ignore him. “These should heal up nicely,” she says. “I don’t think you’ve sprained them.”
“It doesn’t matter.” He tries to reclaim his hands from her.
“You won’t say that when you’re trying to beat Robbie at squash.”
“We don’t play squash anymore. Not since you—“ Oh, how he fights not to say it, even in the grip of whatever-this-is; his stomach recoils; he nauseates himself; but still he bites out, “—since you stole him from me.”
Laura doesn’t look up, but something in her face freezes. Her touch is still so gentle, thumb brushing his palm. “I know,” she says softly. “I suppose I did know that. But, you see, I love him.”
“You took him away, and he was all I had!” James can’t stand to have her touching him. He feels sick and ashamed and seething with anger. “You knew he was the only thing. The only person who ever— He was supposed to retire, and I would quit, and I thought nothing would change, not really, I’d find a way to— And then he suddenly he’d got this whole other life, a little house well-filled, a little wife well-willed, and he didn’t know what to do with me. He didn’t want me anymore.”
Laura makes a small, terribly sad sound. “James.” She reaches up and cradles his face.
James jerks back forcefully. “Don’t. Don’t you dare pity me. Implying how little I have in my life, as if that wasn’t your fault. Treating me like a feral cat, because you don’t have the guts to say what you really think, which is, There’s something really wrong with you—”
“That’s not what I think,” Laura says quietly. Her voice is steady as ever. Perhaps part of being a doctor— although the dead don’t castigate you. Or not in the same way. “You know I don’t think that.”
“You’re wrong,” James tells her. He tries to turn and stalk away, but her hands on him have turned firm and hurtful. He hadn’t thought she could summon up so much strength. She grasps at his t-shirt, refusing to let him go, and he kicks out at her, desperate to be free, but he can’t shake her loose, and then he’s sprawling on the shingle— pebbles tearing into his jeans and biting his flesh— and—
And it’s not shingle, but snowfall: a big soft bank of snow. James scrambles up out of it breathless and freezing. His skin is pebbled with goosebumps and the cold burns his ears. The sky is white as cotton over snow-laden hedges. The whole place looks as though it hasn’t been disturbed in ages. Centuries, maybe. Maybe it hasn’t been. He is close, he thinks, to the heart of the maze. Who knows what feet in ancient times have walked upon these inhuman paths; somehow, he doesn’t think he’s in England anymore.
The snow is deep; his boots sink in it. Slow going. He struggles, rubbing his arms, his whole body stuck in violent shivers, his breath forming frost against his lips. He has to get out of here, because he’s clever, and he knows what’s coming. But he’s so tired, and so cold, and the next time he stumbles, he can’t seem to crawl to his feet again.
“The one time you leave your coat at home, eh?”
James wells up at the sound of the voice, but he has to laugh through tears. “I know. I should’ve brought an umbrella, as well. The Met Office has really gone to the dogs.”
Lewis offers him a hand. James takes it, and lets himself be levered up. When he tries to let go, Lewis won’t let him.
“Sir,” James says, “you really shouldn’t be here.”
“I know.” Lewis looks around, casual as you like. “According to your mate Zoe, this is Fairyland. I have to say, I’m a bit unimpressed. Expected lots of funny puppets and David Bowie. Labyrinth,” he explains, at James’s bewildered look. “Our Lyn couldn’t get enough of it when she was a bairn.”
“Ah,” James says, and tries politely to pull away once more.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Lewis says. “I think it’s best if I hold onto you a bit longer.”
James shakes his head. “You don’t want to do that.”
“How about you let me decide what I want to do?”
He’s managed to get a good hold on James’s forearms. James is reminded of Jacob wrestling the angel, a illustration in a Mediaeval psalter. In all the most famous artists’ depictions, the angel seems to have the upper hand; Jacob looks defeated, imprisoned and weary, as though it’s the angel whose outrageous demand has forced this struggle. I will not let you go unless you want to be loved. I will not let you go unless you ask to be blessed. Earlier renditions saw them on equal footing: two strangers who embraced as much as they wrestled. I will not let you go until you stop loving me. I will not stop blessing you until you ask to be blessed. He doesn’t know who’s Jacob here, and who’s the angel. He’s just so tired of fighting on either side. Of giving his blessing. Of waiting to be loved. Of his recondite heart unwrestled for its harvest of blessings. Of his rifled self always repelling the siege of emotion. Of love, divine and mortal: of love, love, love.
He sits down heavily in the snow, dragging Lewis with him.
“Steady, now,” Lewis says.
James is cold and tired. Shivering and, abruptly, crying. He doesn't seem to have any power over it. He feels horribly naked. It’s a messy situation: the air is cold enough that snot forms a thin crust on his upper lip, and his tears threaten to freeze his eyelashes shut. Lewis keeps rubbing his back, his hand slow and warm, too solidly real and undemanding to ever be a fiction of this place.
“You shouldn’t want to be anywhere near me,” James says thickly. “I’m not ever going to be what you want me to be. I can’t help it. I wasn’t what they wanted either. Especially later. I wasn’t what anyone wanted, in the end. I’m sorry; I know you worked really hard; you spent so much time and effort; and I tried, I really tried to be. I wanted to give you that. I even stayed in the department, like you wanted. But I can’t ever seem to fit anywhere.”
“Ah, James.” He can hear the half-break in Lewis’s voice as Lewis tugs him into an embrace. Lewis’s breath, slightly ragged. “You fit just fine. You’ve got to grow where you’re planted. And nothing about you is so bad that it’s going to make me not want you. You’re a part of me, do you understand? It doesn’t work like that. If we get out of this, you could stand to put down some roots. Stop being so bloody afraid that someone’s going to tear you up. You have a home now.”
“It doesn’t always feel like it.”
“Homes don’t always.”
“Well, no one ever told me that.”
Lewis sighs. “I’ll find you a book about it, all right? Maybe one with a chapter on communication.”
“I hate that kind of book. And I think I was under an enchantment.” The idea feels blurry and strange to him. He frowns vaguely up at the pale dawn sky. He’s shivering less now. Lewis is warm, comforting against him. “Is Briony all right? I wasn’t sure if she could tell you. She was under an enchantment, too.”
“She’s fine. She’s back at mine. We put the pieces together. It was the painting that showed us what to do. It was a kind of map. There was a charm on it; Zoe figured it out. Listen to me,” he says, resigned, “talking about charms and enchantments! I sound like me old gran. But we worked it out well enough to come and find you.”
James nods tiredly. He notices that he can feel solid earth under his fingers: straw-dry grass, now, instead of snow. The hedge is green and the sun is rising. He and Lewis are in the centre of a bare, deserted square. The heart of the maze? It doesn’t look like the heart of anything. Just a few desolate square metres, largely forgotten. There’s a forlorn bench in the corner, painted white. The whole scene feels small, and very banal.
“Is it… over now, do you think?” asks James uncertainly. “Are we back in England?”
“I should damn well hope so,” Lewis grumbles. “We’ve been here a night and a day!”
“It seemed much shorter to me," James says. "I thought there would be... more."
“There’s been quite enough!”
“I thought there would be a tiger. That’s what they always said, the Mortmaignes. That there was a tiger who lives at the heart of the maze, and it would come and eat you up if you— did anything they didn’t like, really.”
“There was a tiger,” Lewis says. “In the Sixties. A police chief superintendent killed it.”
“Yes, but I thought— oh, never mind.” James picks himself up awkwardly, feeling like he’s been through a bout of ague. He almost falls back down again straight away. Luckily, Lewis is still hanging on to his shoulders.
“Don’t tell me you’re disappointed,” Lewis says.
“I don’t think I know what to feel.” He doesn’t. It must show on his face, because the teasing aspect fades from Lewis’s expression.
“Come on, lad. Let’s get you home,” Lewis says, half-supporting him as they make their way out of the square.
“Oh, God, do we have to do the maze again?”
“It’s only a maze this time.”
And, indeed, this time the maze is only a maze. It seems shorter, the hedges waxy and complacent, their leaves fat from an English summer and flatly green. Bushtits hop around between the branches. The autumn air is cold and slightly sun-dazzled. Despite the comforting reality of the scene, James clings to Lewis, not quite ready to release him— “I think,” he reflects, “I’m still expecting a tiger.”
“A phantom tiger, maybe. Sometimes the fear of a thing—“
“Is worse than the thing itself. I know.”
“I was going to say, Sometimes the fear of a thing becomes the thing you fear.” Lewis rests for a minute, breathing hard from the exertion of holding James up.
“I think that’s very wise, sir.”
“I have my moments.”
James’s hand curls in Lewis’s shirt, just below the collar. “You do,” he says. “You really do.”
Soon they see the gap where the maze exits onto the lawn, revealing a strip of gravel drive and a glimpse of the estate. James hesitates as they near it, holding back a little.
“I said terrible things,” he says. “To Lizzie and Zoe and Laura. They were trying to help, and I was horrible to them.”
“So you owe them an apology.” Lewis shrugs. “They’ll understand. We none of us knew quite what to expect. But every one of us was willing to take the risk, if it meant that we could keep you safe.”
“I’m not sure I deserve that,” James says rather wretchedly.
Lewis sighs. “Well, we’ll work on that. Right now, we’ve got some business to attend to.”
James sees what he means when they leave the maze behind: on the lawn stand Selina and Titus Mortmaigne, both looking somehow less splendid than they had been, as though their substance itself has been spent in some struggle. Some evening glamour has been stripped away from them, and they’re cheap, wan, and thin in the light of day. Maddox is guarding them with a fierce and suspicious eye.
Zoe and Hobson are both sitting on a low stone wall. Zoe leaps up when she sees Lewis and James, and hurls herself at James, pressing shuddering breaths against his shoulder. “You’re okay!” she says. Then, as though she’s checking, “You’re okay? You’re okay.”
“I’m okay,” James says, though he isn’t one hundred percent sure.
Lewis says to Selina Mortmaigne, "Right. He belongs to himself now. We laid claim to him, and it would seem our claim has been recognized."
“We can’t live like this!” Selina snaps. Her niceness has cracked down the middle. “Do you want us to waste away? Do you want to be responsible for our deaths? Look at what you’ve done!”
James peers around vaguely. Now that he turns his attention to it, he sees with a sense of astonishment that the whole of the Crevecoeur estate seems to have fallen into ruin. The lawn, which had previously only begun its surrender to a tide of wildflowers and knotgrass, is now thick and variegated with chickweed and burdock, with charlock and brambles and other sorts of things that he can only identify as the type of plants that take seed and thrive where they’re not wanted.
The Hall itself looks to have been left for a century to rot. Its windows are all broken, and ivy’s overtaken the walls entirely. The ironclad doors, so like those of a prison, have splintered. On the roof, swallows dive and dart in and out of chimneys and holes in the slate. It’s an oddly peaceful sight. Though—
“—Poor William Kent,” James says. “Not really his fault, was it?”
“To everything there is a season,” Lewis says. The comment appears to be directed to Selina Mortmaigne. “Yours, it seems, is up. I think it’s best if you leave Oxfordshire. Probably best if you left England altogether.”
Selina turns a furious face towards him. But her son is taking her by the hand, tugging her towards the maze— the entrance to which shimmers queasily for a moment.
Titus pauses and turns to look at James. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I am, truly. Tell Briony—“
It’s easy to be generous now that the threat is gone. And, too, James thinks of Scarlett: her voice frail and of static, trying badly to protect him, misguided to the last. What chance did they have? He pities them a little, the Mortmaigne children. Enough to say, “Yes. I’ll tell her.”
And then they’re gone, disappearing into the greenery. It seems to wilt a little as they go, collapsing into a more ordinary outline.
“I vote,” Maddox says, “that we burn that maze down.”
“I don’t think the National Trust would like that much,” Lewis says. “Perhaps a little judicious pruning.”
James sits down abruptly in a patch of grass. All his blood seems to have rushed down below his ankles. There are stars in his vision, and he doesn’t think they’re due to enchantment. “This is mad,” he says. He’s suddenly feeling dazed and bewildered. “You do realize that this is completely, completely, completely—”
“I can’t believe you’re the last person realizing this,” Zoe says. “Anyway, we’ve got to get back to Oxford, because Briony’s waiting. And I’m supposed to be teaching a class. If I lose my fellowship, James, and become penniless and unemployable, I’m going to make you support me in my old age.”
“Anything you want,” James tells her. Oddly, he’s on the verge of laughter, or maybe on the verge of crying again. “Zoe Suskin, Laura Hobson, Lizzie Maddox— anything you want, for as long as I live. And Robbie Lewis—“ He turns, shielding his eyes against the sun to catch a glimpse of Lewis. The gift of speech leaves him. He’s breathless with emotion, bereft of a way to channel it. “Robbie Lewis,” he repeats.
Lewis reaches out and scrubs a thumb across James’ forehead, wiping away some invisible smudge. “Ah, just buy me a pint,” he says.