In which Angus Recites a Poem
Miss Oberlan inclines her head, whispering, “Granny’s quite asleep.”
Her hot breath, wafting under Angus’s chin, prompts him to withdraw the handkerchief from his breast pocket and dab at the sweat beading his brow. He leans away from her, though the settee is small and he can not lean far enough. “Please, Matilda, it’s late.”
She sits up straight, settling Garretty’s Verses for Good Girls once more atop her thighs. Angus returns the dampened cloth to his pocket, clears his throat, and glances crossly at the old woman seated at the other end of the parlor.
Mrs. Hampshire is definitely dozing. Her knitting needles and the sock, sweater, or scarf she has been fumbling into creation lays dormant on her lap. Her withered chin, with it’s wispy hairs, droops against her chest. Her rocker has ceased its slow creaking. Finding the elderly chaperone thus remiss in her duties, Angus clears his throat again, loudly. But Mrs. Hampshire does not stir.
Miss Oberlan intones, “Of the Mountain in the Mist,” her otherwise fair voice falling into a bland monotone. She has clearly grown bored with the lesson, as has Angus—as has, even more clearly, Miss Oberlan’s grandmother. But the Autumnal pageant is a few days hence, and the silly girl has yet to commit even a third of the poem to memory.
“Of the mountains in the Mist
beyond the veil of summer’s glow
Beyond the tiding rampant starlight
nimbus shine for all to know
We speak in subtle rev’rent hymnal
lest the gods who there dwell still…”
She yawns, loudly, giving in to an impulse Angus himself has been struggling to suppress. Despite the lack of a fire, the room is sweltering. Sweat creeps down the nape of his neck, runs in rivulets down the center of his chest. He subdues a second impulse, this time to leap up and throw open the window, recollecting what devilry the summer flaxen can wreak upon Miss Oberlan’s respiration. Her recitation still needed much, but not inflamed nasal passages.
“Lest the gods who there dwell still
should rouse from ancient troubled slumber”
The poem once again puts Angus in mind of the painting by Friedrich—which he knows only in the ekphrastic—showing a mountain peak encircled by wispy clouds. The image, described to him in some detail by his mother who claimed to have viewed it herself at seventeen, had particularly impressed him, even as his dame, with the utter lack of artistic sensibility one must tolerate in women, dismissed the painting as pedestrian and too steeped in mythology to be of any merit.
“To wield once more their grievous will”
Matilda Oberlan’s voice has begun to grow breathless, reminding him again of the closed window, and his own keen sense that the salon is not properly ventilated. His collar seems to squeeze tighter around his throat. A drop of sweat beads at the interior end of his left eyebrow and hangs, poised like a glistening diamond half an inch from his eye, before falling in a slow, undulating ball to crash against the side of his nose.
And then he feels the faint pressure of Miss Oberlan’s shoe pressing down atop his own. At first, dismissing the sensation as a sign of her growing impatience, he shifts his foot a few inches away from hers. They have sat already three quarters of an hour, and, as Angus knows from previous tutoring sessions, Miss Oberlan’s natural restlessness will not readily tolerate much more. But then the pressure returns, and Angus realizes the shoe coming to rest over his own does so with a sly, teasing pressure. Then the toe of her shoe pivots, catching the hem of his trouser leg. She nudges the garment upward, lightly tracing a quivering line up his stocking.
“What blood, what blood the ancient slumber
Calls from each beleaguered foe”
“Miss Oberlan!” Angus leaps to his feet, inadvertently knocking the volume of poetry from her lap. The book tumbles across the floor. Matilda gasps and stares up at him as if he’s lost his wits. Granny Hampshire likewise sits forward in a sudden frenzy, crying, “A greater age than thine!” The ball of yarn, heretofore nestled in her lap, bounces to the floor and rolls toward the window as if intent upon escape.
Seeing the utter terror on Matilda’s face, Angus fumbles to collect himself. Half-formed utterances tussle with one another in his throat, resulting in a short series of stuttered, “Hem, I, you, we.” He draws his handkerchief and applies it to the back of his neck.
Matilda’s face softens, a smile molding itself seductively across her lips as she angles her head in such a way as to show him her neck. “Angus?”
He frowns at her and stoops to retrieve her book which lays spreadeagle on its spine. “Allow me.” The pages flutter as he rises, and a piece of tanned parchment drifts back down to the floor. Closing the book, he passes it to Miss Oberlan and stoops again to retrieve the parchment. It has the feel of vellum, smooth and cool against his fingertips, and droops like fine tissue as he rises holding it. “What’s this?”
Miss Oberlan’s eyes widen and her strange smile is replaced by a hungry, almost feral expression. “Oh!”
Angus turns the page over to discover strange markings on the other side. At first the scratches seem utterly incomprehensible, but then he deduces they are some sort of symbols. They appear to be organized in what might generously be described as a pattern. Finally, he realizes they are characters from the American English alphabet, only they do not form readily recognizable words and are drawn crudely, almost carved into the soft piece of canvas as primitive man once chiseled letters into a cave wall.
Poised to repeat his request for an explanation, he angles the strange document toward the light, when Matilda, raising her shoulders and angling her head, giggles. “You found my surprise!”
He sits beside her on the settee, unable to remove his gaze from the confused jumble of letters. “Surprise?”
“Yes, Angus. You’ve been so wonderfully patient helping me with this dreadful poem, I wanted to do something for you.” She leans toward him again, the crinoline of her sleeve rustling against the worsted wool of his jacket.
Intently studying the document, he does not pull away but simply presses his query. “What is it?”
“A poem?” What nonsense; it is clearly anything but.
“Yes. I wrote it myself. It was very difficult.” She straightens and tugs the left sleeve of her dress up to reveal her forearm. Several ugly enflamed red scratches crisscross her pale flesh. “I used father’s pen knife.” She giggles again, and Angus notes for the first time that the giggle is not that of a giddy schoolgirl, but rather like a drunken lecher growling into his cup. She grabs his upper arm. “Won’t you read it, Angus? We would surely love to hear you read it.”
“But it makes no sense. What language is this?”
She lowers her face to rub her cheek against his shoulder. “Our own secret language.” She squirms closer to him, and Garretty’s Verses for Good Girls again tumbles to the floor.
He squints at what he presumes is the first word. There appears to be no punctuation other than random apostrophes scattered willy-nilly. Even the wider spaces between groupings of letters make little sense. As often as not they isolate a T or some other lonely consonant.
“Magrath,” he says, doing his best to pronounce the jumble of letters phonetically.
Miss Oberlan sighs—a deep, almost crooning expulsion of breathe. She angles her face upward in ecstasy. “Magrass,” she corrects him, turning the final syllable into a serpentine hiss.
“Korem tul vascoo.”
“Koreem thul vescu.”
With the last, fading vestiges of his good sense, Angus shakes his head. An earthy odor of loam and mulch and, faintly, fire has seeped into the room. He glances toward the window, thinking somehow it must have opened and a breeze has carried the strange smells in from outdoors. But, of course, the window remains closed.
“Matilda, this is nonsense.”
She looks up, plaintive. Nearly the whole weight of her presses against his side. Her hands clutch his sleeve. She pleads in the voice of the silly girl he has known since childhood. “Oh, Angus, you mustn’t stop once you’ve begun! Start again! Start again!”
But having found the wherewithal to disregard the vellum at least momentarily, he looks down at her. She’s grown unnaturally pale, and sweat flows freely down her brow.
“On the contrary, I think we should stop for the night,” he says. “Shall I call your mother?”
Her eyes flash. “Why do we need her, when I’m right here beside you? Can’t you feel me?” As if to ensure his answer can be nothing but yes, she slides nearly into his lap, pressing her thigh right up against his.
“Matilda, you’re behaving—” But he can not summon the words to explain it. Oddly, when she had coquettishly played her shoe atop his, he’d been readily capable of formulating an objection, but finding her underdeveloped bosom undulating so near his chin, he is rendered quite at a loss.
“Oh, please, darling Angus, read, read. A bit more. Just a bit, for me. For me.”
He bends his head to the vellum again. “Tarn oth.”
“No!” she nearly screams. “From the beginning!”
He complies, finding himself intoning, “Magrass,” nearly as fluently as she had, and then proceeding with a new-found confidence. Gradually, the words grow oddly familiar. Or, rather it is less the words than the cadence, as if he is remembering some ancient lullaby. The odors continue to increase: the smell of wet, upturned dirt, the hint of crushed greenery, churning and composting, and the flame growing less fiery and more like the charged air before a thunderstorm. Pressure seems to build in the room as he nears the end of the carved letters. Matilda pulls away from him, her hands dropping down between her thighs. She bunches her skirts in her fists and slowly begins drawing them up.
“Oh, Angus! It’s beautiful! Beautiful and obscene! Don’t stop!”
The sight of her white-stockinged knees finally draws his gaze from the vellum and, in a sudden panic, he looks toward old Granny Hampshire as if to cry out for rescue. Much to his horror, he finds the elderly woman not only revived, but watching them. Her great round head, wrapped in its summer bonnet, is cocked at a perilous angle atop her shoulder. Her brow dips threateningly over eyes iridescent with malice, and her mouth hangs open, unleashing a great slavering tongue that uncoils several inches before curving back up to lap at the charged air with a twitching, forked end.
As Angus cries out, the entire house is shaken by a mighty crash. The floor jumps beneath his feet as if the devil himself has shot up from hell to ram his gnarled horns into the foundation. With a pathetic answering squeak, Matilda leaps up and speeds from the room. And Granny Hampshire, as if from a restive slumber, sits forward with another start, looking around with a determined chin to find the culprit guilty of disturbing her. “Charles le Sorcier, indeed! Whatever are you on about Matilda?”
Angus sits helpless, staring from the bewildered old woman to the parlor door which Miss Oberlan has left open in her retreat. He hears her storming up the stairs and the cataclysmic crash of her bedroom door slamming. Mrs. Hampshire, staring woefully at the escaped ball of yarn, her face once again the pale, round, rather stupid one he’s always known asks, “Did I dose off?”
Finally Mrs. Oberlan appears in the doorway, looking quite bewildered. She glances back over her shoulder. “Whatever happened, Angus?”
He looks up at her and feels his mouth moving even as no sound issues from his lips. However, she remains too distracted to notice, and simply presses him. “Angus?”
Something is faintly offensive in her saying his name like that, and, though he can not quite put his finger on it, his annoyance dispels the vestiges of whatever had come over him while he’d tried to decipher the vellum. Latching onto his resentment, as he is wont to do, he offers, somewhat pedantically, “It sounded like a gas explosion.”
Mrs. Oberlan’s eyes widen in alarm. “An explosion?” Angus knows she has an exaggerated fear of gas explosions.
“What else could it have been?”
“I don’t know what you mean. An explosion?” She paces convulsively into the parlor, crossing halfway to the window.
“You heard it, surely. It shook the entire house.”
“I heard Matilda on the stairs and then her…door.”
Mrs. Hampshire, working her way slowly out of her rocker, mutters, “I suppose now she’ll start that infernal tapping and be at it all night.” She glances at Angus, still motionless on the settee. “Perhaps you dozed off. It’s so stuffy in here.”
Mrs. Oberlan reaches the window and hoists it up. “If one of the neighbors…” She listens intently a moment, doubtless for the commotion a gas explosion might be expected to stir. But the only sound is the wanton wail of a molly in her season. And then, closer, the answering cry of a lusty tom. “Wretched beasts! Will you give us no peace?” She hugs herself and trembles, as if the breeze that creeps into the room is not hot and heavy with the portent of an approaching storm.
“Buck up, Mirriam,” Mrs. Hampshire says with a sneer. “It’s my room’s next to Matilda’s, and me she keeps up all hours with her tomfoolery!”
Angus realizes suddenly that the strange amalgam of odors he’d discerned while reading the vellum has dissipated, and, with it, the last of the trance-like malaise that had stolen over him. A kaleidoscope of vague memories flash through his mind. Had Miss Oberlan intimated she’d cut herself with her father’s penknife? Certainly not. Nor had old Mrs. Hampshire glared at him like a slavering jackal. Might he have nodded off? The room was stifling. And the poem they had been working on had been so dreadfully uninspired. The poem! He looks around for the vellum. Had Miss Oberlan snatched it from him just as she’d taken flight? Or had that, too, been part of a dream?
“Angus? Are you feeling ill?” Mrs. Oberlan, her back to the window, appraises him with some concern.
“He does look a bit more pale than usual,” Mrs. Hampshire agrees, having retrieved the recalcitrant ball of yarn and settled once again into her rocker.
“I hope Matilda wasn’t unpleasant. She’s not been herself lately.”
With a last desperate sweep of the room for the vellum, Angus tells her, offhand, “On the contrary, I think I overtired the poor dear. Mr. Handy warns me I can be quite the martinet.”
“You’re still helping out round the library, then?”
His head clearer, despite the confusion as to what he might or might not have imagined, Angus realizes what had stirred his resentment earlier. It is quite inappropriate for her to address a man of twenty-two so informally. He would not call her Mirriam. Nor can she be unaware that he is still engaged at the South Providence Library. They had discussed his promotion to first assistant librarian on his last visit. But all he says is, “I am,” and then, placing his feet firmly upon the floor preparatory to rising, “Perhaps I’d best be off.”
“Certainly, Angus.” Mrs. Oberlan takes his arm once he is up and they began the journey out into the hall.
Escorting him to the door, she apologizes twice more for any potential rude behavior on Matilda’s part. Apparently, the poor girl has been under the weather all week. Then, looking rather flustered, she wonders where his coat might be before he assures her, patiently, that it is only September and he has not worn a coat.
“Things will go missing!” she declares, apparently quite at wit’s end.
Retrieving his hat, Angus continues to reassure her—not only about the safety of his garments, but about her daughter. Seventeen is an age requiring certain forbearances, after all. Then he bows his way out onto the porch, turning to wish her a final goodnight only to find the door closing in his face. The scream of the hinges and the clanging of the latch echo off into the gathering darkness like the sealing of a tomb.
In which Angus Encounters a Bevy of Extraordinary Characters
Notwithstanding the abruptness of his departure, the fresh evening air acts as an immediate restorative. Even the lingering reminiscences of loam and mulch and electricity vanish. And he tosses his head disdainfully at the notion of the crash he’d imagined shaking the house. Surely he had imagined it. Mrs. Oberland had not heard it. And he knows Matilda’s mother frets daily about the prospect of the new gas lines wreaking havoc, so she would have made much of such a commotion. Gone too is the memory of the unnerving feel of the vellum, like varnished flesh in his hands. And the very idea of unimaginative young Matilda dipping into her own veins for ink. With her father’s penknife! What had put such an idea into his head?
He steps slowly down from the stoop, his shoes grinding loudly against the dry stone.
Upon reaching the garden gate, he pauses again to sample the air and look both ways. Movell Boulevard, the high street, is a half block away to the left, well-lit and quite possibly dotted with a few shops still open for business. The intersection glows with the warm welcoming amber sheen of many street lamps. To his right, a bit farther away, is Carrington Road, which will take him to Fall Street and, a mere half block from that intersection, his own garden gate.
He glances left again, thinking a stroll down the high street really did appeal to him, but then he shrugs and turns right, toward Carrington, telling himself he is being silly and self-indulgent and really should be getting home.
The sky is heavy and low, an unbroken mass of undulating cloud that make the street, the town—indeed, the entire world—look as if it has been swallowed by some impossibly immense creature and is, even now, being slowly digested in its roiling gullet. Lightning flashes within the miasma, like malevolent fairy lights or marauding angels besieging the clouds from above.
Halfway to the corner, he notices how incredibly dark it is and decides the street lamps have not been lit. Perhaps a gas line has ruptured after all. But surely such an occurrence would have triggered a reasonable commotion, and the neighborhood is deathly quiet.
The thought has no sooner formed in his mind, then again arises the anguished wailing of the she-cat, and, in answer, an entire chorus of surrounding males.
He carries on, reassured by the bold, reverberating echoes of his own steady footfalls. Approaching the corner, however, he spies an eerie, glowing ball of light hovering in the air. The street lamp. It has been lit. He moves closer, discovering that even when he stands beside the lamppost with the bulb positioned directly overhead, its illumination does not wash over him. He sees it glowing, plainly burning with its customary ferocity, yet it seems unable to pierce the surrounding gloom. How curious, he thinks before recalling that he has but latterly resolved to discourage his innate tendency to indulge in idle ruminations over the curious. Hadn’t Mr. Handy admonished him that there would be “no more distractions” when he announced Angus’s promotion?
Suppressing a faint shiver, Angus turns the corner.
The long stretch of Carrington Road toward Fall Street, suddenly seems farther than three blocks. The dark street, lined with darker houses and covered by the dreary sky, has him regretting his decision to forego a stroll down Movell Boulevard. But, no, he knows these streets like the back of his hand. He has roamed them the past twenty-two years, even if the first two or three had been from within the safety of his perambulator. Something has doubtless interfered with the street lamps, possibly a rupture a few blocks over, which would also explain the absence of any nearby signs of life. Everyone has gone to see. Angus resolves to make his way nonetheless.
Another great yowling cry rises from somewhere in the darkness between houses. And, again, an answer. Two. Three. Angus shakes his head. Have there always been so many cats in his neighborhood? But he strikes out once more with purpose, determined to ignore the feline choir.
Reaching Maple Street—one block conquered—he does not pause before stepping off the curb and crossing to the other side, immediately discerning a tall figure approaching him from the far end of the second block. He gives a slight start and then chides himself for more foolishness. He strides on, deciding he will be first to wish the fellow a cheery good evening. That is when he notices the second man, walking along the sidewalk on the other side of the street.
Carrington Road runs north and south, and Angus is headed north along the western sidewalk. The two men are headed toward him, southward, on either side of the street. If he steps off the sidewalk and crosses at an angle to the east side of the street, he sees he can pass safely between them in the middle of the road, attaining the eastern sidewalk behind the man traversing that side of the street. It makes perfect sense, too, since he will turn right toward home when he reaches Fall Street. And why are these two strangers, so nonchalantly strolling the darkened sidewalks, keeping such an uncanny pace with one another anyway? It is undeniably odd.
The moment he steps into the road, both of the other men stop, which prompts Angus to stop and reconsider his plan. Reaching the opposite sidewalk behind the second man will, with this alteration, require him walking a rather protracted distance down the middle of the road and how might that look? Even as he experiences the first stirrings of panic, his constitution is such that he bristles most at the idea of looking foolish rather than cowardly.
Ironically, this leads him to behave most foolishly. He turns and retraces the ten strides to Maple, thinking he might turn there, head toward Movell Boulevard and enjoy the fully functioning street lamps and whatever merchants might still be peddling their wares.
But upon reaching the corner, he sees a third man, standing directly in the middle of the road. This one, silhouetted by the golden illumination of the boulevard behind him, is revealed to carry a cane and is dressed in a cape and top hat. Angus steps off the curb to cross Maple and head back down Carrington to Ash, the street on which the Oberlans live, though he does not know whether he plans to traverse that street to Movell or to seek sanctuary in the Oberlan household. Halfway across the street, his head turned to keep an eye on the dark figure blocking Maple Street, Angus crashes into a fourth man blocking his path.
How he might not have noticed this fellow, after discerning the presence of the other three, Angus can not fathom. To begin with, he is by no means dark. He wears a shining white summer suit, with a vest of silver silk and a baby blue four-in-hand. The pale flesh of his face, flushed with excitement, fairly glows in the suffocating gloom. And a wild shock of golden hair encircles his head like a nimbus. Amid the abysmal cloying darkness, he shines like some earthbound seraphim.
“I beg your—” Angus starts to say, only to have the words catch in his throat.
For the man is not, after all, a complete stranger to him. Though they have never met, though Angus, in fact, has never imagined he might actually exist, Angus recognizes him. He knows this stranger who stands at the intersection of Maple Street and Carrington Road, holding a sword.
“Don’t you live in the other direction?” Icy flames dance in the man’s bright blue eyes. Pink, rather luscious lips part in a wry grin.
Pulling back, Angus stumbles, prompting the man to leap forward, grab Angus’s lapel and turn him. They move back up the center of Carrington toward the two mysterious dark figures standing on either side of the street.
“They’re trying to herd you,” the fellow shares confidentially, as if this is a secret he is reluctant to impart. He increases his pace, his hand still tightly clutching Angus’s lapel.
Angus tries to keep up, hampered by surprise, disbelief, and an inability to look at anything but the man’s stunning face. “But—”
“But nothing.” The man suddenly stops causing Angus to crash into him again. “Here they come!”
The two dark figures spring from the sidewalks and sprint toward them. The blond fellow laughs, calling, “Stay down!” and nearly shoves Angus to the pavement. The fellow bounds forward, leapfrogging over Angus and slashing with his sword. The approaching figures fall back, away from the swinging blade, dividing once again toward either side of the street. The swordsman, standing triumphant in the middle of Carrington Road, hollers to Angus, “Run!”
Angus finds himself adhering to the command even as a part of him worries he ought not to abandon the blond fellow, sword or no. But once again the echo of his own pounding footsteps, tearing through the preternaturally silent night, seems to encourage him to ever greater speed. He dashes down the center of Carrington Road toward Cedar, one hand settling instinctively atop his Homburg. Behind him echo the taunting shouts of his mysterious savior.
“Ha! You think so, you dog? Come on, then, try again! Coward! Fiend! Oh, no you don’t!”
Halfway down the remaining block of Carrington, between Cedar and Fall Streets, Angus glimpses one of the caped men running along beside him, not in the street, but through the yards of the dark houses. The man springs with uncanny grace over hedges and waist-high fences, gaining momentum, clearly hoping to head Angus off at Fall Street. Indeed, when Angus reaches Fall, his course has him turning right, directly into the path of his pursuer.
He wills himself to run faster, but he has never been athletic. Despite his long legs and lean physique, he has always disdained the vulgarity of the sprint. Drawing breath is already a struggle and pain tightens his chest as he skids to a halt in the middle of the intersection of Carrington Road and Fall Street.
He stands there gasping, desperate to stoop over and brace himself against his own wobbly knees, but too terrified to do anything other than search the darkness for his pursuer. For the dark figure has stopped too, in the shadowy recesses of the corner house’s garden, half-hidden behind a verge of rhododendrons.
Why doesn’t he attack? Angus wonders, amazed his thinking has progressed to the point that his not being attacked on his way home of an evening’s tutoring proves cause for consternation. Yet the men had approached with clearly malevolent intent before being driven back by the blond swordsman, this one all but running Angus to ground. Still the figure remains in the shadows. All that stands between them is the sidewalk corner and a lamp post, the light from which, like that of all its neighbors, burns intently but fails to illuminate much beyond a pale halo perhaps three or four feet in diameter around the flame.
Angus steps tentatively back down Carrington. The figure in the yard takes a reciprocal step in the same direction. Angus takes another step, also mirrored by his stalker, who then takes a smaller step forward, slightly narrowing the distance between them. Angus quickly backtracks north to his original position, and the dark figure does the same. Curious—if curiosity can be considered a viable emotion in the midst of mounting terror, physical exhaustion and profound confusion.
Angus steps toward the figure, but also toward the sidewalk and the feebly glowing street lamp. The figure remains motionless, but Angus hears a low rumbling purr from its direction.
Angus digs into the hip pocket of his trousers. Though Angus does not smoke, Mr. Handy had once explained to him that all men, in addition to a clean handkerchief and trolley fare, should carry a book of matches. He withdraws his, brand new and never opened, claws away the wrappings and strikes a match.
The purring sound immediate ceases, and Angus thinks the shadowy figure tenses. So, perhaps even a faint light can keep his dark assailant at bay. He raises the match and the figure steps back. Angus gazes longingly down Fall Street, his own front stoop perhaps a hundred paces distant. He can dash it, despite the ache in his chest and the trembling of his knees, but the match will not survive. He starts slowly toward home, brandishing his flame like a small, pathetic torch.
After only about half a dozen paces however, the fire reaches his fingertips and he hisses. He angrily whips his hand, losing the match in the process. An answering hiss, as from some maniacal cat, issues from the darkness. Without bothering to look to see if his pursuer leaps toward him, Angus takes off again at a frantic, headlong pace toward home.
He can see his own stoop a mere fifteen yards ahead, twelve, ten, illuminated by the single fixture above the door. The steps and small recessed porch glow like a beacon against the surrounding darkness. Here at last is a source of illumination behaving as a light should. It calls to him with its promise of sanctuary and respite, inspiring his aching legs and aching lungs to push themselves beyond their limits. Yet he can feel his pursuer closing. The man has moved out onto the sidewalk, the sound of his footfalls strangely muffled compared to the echoing staccato of Angus’s own.
Reeling past the house one short of his, Angus spies his neighbor, Mrs. Eddy out on her porch in her wheeled chair. She is rather bundled up, despite the warmth of the evening, with a quilt over her failing legs and a shawl draped loosely about her shoulders. Beside her stands her nurse, Winifred.
“Mrs. Eddy! Run!”
“Run?” A redoubtable old woman, quite severe in her bearing, she is not one for easy levity. But his admonition seems to amuse her.
“Get inside!” He skids to a halt, daring a look over his shoulder. Much to his horror, he finds his pursuer no more than ten feet behind him, but once again stopped as completely as Angus has. The dark figure poses motionless at the edge of Mrs. Eddy’s yard.
“You’re quite safe now, Angus,” Mrs. Eddy assures him. “Hurry home. Your mother is waiting.”
But Angus continues to stare, fascinated by the man facing him. Though he stands as close to one of the dark figures as he has been, he can discern no features. Like the others, this one wears a cape and a top hat—which has remained curiously fastened to his head despite the running and leaping he’s been engaged in. Tremulously, Angus produces and strikes another match.
“Good boy,” he hears old Mrs. Eddy croon from afar. “It’s always best to see for oneself.”
But afterward, Angus will only wish he had never looked, for facing him is not a man, but rather a crude approximation of a man, twisted hairy claws protruding from the sleeves of a somewhat antiquated suit, and the wicked, snarling face of a tiger beneath the silk top hat.
Angus springs back, dropping the match, half expecting, in the restored darkness, the terrible creature to lunge at him. But no attack comes.
“It can proceed no farther,” Mrs. Eddy tells him. “You’re safe. Go home.”
But as if to challenge her apparent authority, Angus watches the creature struggle to turn its head toward her, growling.
Winifred, a large and rather redoubtable woman herself, descends the steps and comes quickly down the path toward the front gate. Wielding a broom, as she nears the edge of the yard she hoists it up, swinging it in a wide arc toward the dark figure’s head. The bristles sweep the darkness, and Angus fancies he can see it gathering up the very air into a glowing emerald fire. The flames explode when they strike the top hat.
The creature, yowling, speeds off into the darkness.
Angus, thinking the world has truly gone insane, does likewise, in the opposite direction, toward the welcoming golden glow of his own porch light.
In which Angus Receives a Summons
Having all but fallen through the door, Angus is shocked to find Cecile, the young parlor maid, manning the entrance. He turns from her, reaching up to throw the top bolt, even as she timidly reaches for his hat.
“Oh, sir, Mr. Pratt had a—”
“That’s quite all right,” comes Mother’s voice from further down the hall.
Angus, kneeling to slide the bolt at the foot of the door, calls over his shoulder. “Get Pratt! Get Colin! Get everyone!”
“Angus, dear.” His mother uses her soothing tone. “Poor Harold’s gone to bed. He wasn’t well. And Colin is busy elsewhere.”
Rising, Angus turns on her, feeling the blood pounding in his face. Fatigue and fright have strained his constitution to its very limit. “Mother! We must fortify the house! Where is Mrs. Belknap?”
His mother stops near the foot of the stairs. She patiently folds her hands. “Well, really. Calm yourself.”
“Calm?” Angus, near shouting, performs a very impatient gesture of exasperation toward the door and the darkness beyond. “There are—”
When he falters, she hoists her eyebrows expectantly. “Yes?”
“Things,” he says, realizing how utterly and completely inept he feels. He steps toward her, spurred by some half-recollected notion that her arms had once been all the safety the world required. But how can she possibly save him from that monstrous predator he’d stared eyeball-to-inhuman-eyeball with? “Mother, you don’t understand.”
She nods once, boldly. “But I do understand. There’s been a letter from your uncle.”
Angus’s extended family, at least as far as he knows, comprises all of one member, his mother’s elder brother, also called Angus. Angus Adder, an hermitic scholar-emeritus at a small private college outside of Chicago. Angus has met him once, twelve years before, the same night his sister Imogene had come into the world. Professor Adder, unimpressed by the birth, had arrived to share the news that Fergus McAslan, Angus’s father, had succumbed on a visit to the Congo. Fergus, Professor Adder sighed wistfully, would not be returning. Ever afterward, Angus has, when unable to completely forget his namesake uncle, come to think of the man as a sort of evil omen.
“Uncle Angus has written?” he says.
His mother, never one for reprising topics already established, draws an indulgent breath through her long, noble nose. “Indeed.” She gestures toward the open doors of the study. “Please.”
“But they’re out there!” He takes a step, drawing even with Cecile.
“And there they shall remain.” His mother nods. As if reading his thoughts, she appends, “Nothing will get past Cecile, I assure you.”
“But Mrs. Eddy and Winifred! They are—”
“Quite as resilient as Cecile.” His mother half-turns, taking a step away.
“But there was a man!”
“Hardly a man.” She adopts a dismissive air. “Little more than trained pets. Despite what your dear Mr. Handy has told you, clothes do not make—”
As usual, he nips her disparagement of his employer in the bud. “No! There was a man!” He hesitates to espouse specifics, troubled by what they might portend. “A blond fellow. With….with blue eyes.”
His mother pivots smartly on her heel. “What’s this?”
He doesn’t know how else to put it. “A man. He…he saved me.”
She takes a single long stride toward him before rearing back up with her usual dignity. “Who was he?”
“I don’t know.” He hates lying to his mother. He so seldom succeeds in convincing her. He adds, feebly, “He had a sword.”
She frowns, cocking her head to the left. “Surely not.”
He shows her his palms. “Well, a foil. Or an épée.”
“Perhaps we’d better see. Dispatch Hazel to the Witley’s,” she snaps to Cecile. “Have Rebecca or Christina see if they can’t find this man.”
“Rebecca or Christina?” Angus is aghast. What possible help could the neighbor’s staff be at such a moment? “Surely we need the police!”
As Cecile scurries from the foyer, Mother offers him another disapproving frown. “Really, Angus. The police are the very last thing we need.” She extends a hand in his direction, flutters it gently, enticingly. He might be ten again, refusing to leave his toys and come to dinner. “Now, I must insist you calm yourself and join me in the study.”
He removes his Homburg and hangs it on its usual hook, straightens his jacket, and crosses the foyer toward her. She turns and leads him past the stairs into the study. The room is well-lit, its windows bundled against the night in heavy red drapery. The red divan beckons enticingly from the far side of the room, but he remains on his shaky legs. His mother crosses to her desk and stands with a hand atop the back of her chair. The remnants of a sliced envelope lay upon the blotter, alongside her silver letter opener. As usual, the room smells faintly of cinnamon and warmth, of winter nights snuggled in comfort and security. Of chocolate and ponderous tomes.
His mother, closer to him than she had been in the foyer, studies his face under the improved lighting. “Shall I get you a glass of water?”
Angus swallows with some difficulty. “I’m fine. You received a letter from Uncle?”
“I did. He wrote announcing the time had come for you to join him.”
Angus notices a faint whitening of the knuckles of her hand on the back of the chair. She explains, “Yes. In his great work. In the family business.”
“Our family business? Archaeology?”
“Well, that is the public persona.” She indicates the divan. “Won’t you sit, darling? We have much to discuss. I’m afraid I’ve been remiss in certain duties.” She shrugs, and Angus can not help but notice how remarkably girlish the gesture seems. He has seldom, if ever, thought of his mother as particularly feminine. “In my defense, dear, I had only your welfare in mind. I know your father’s death—”
Angus cuts abruptly across the room toward the divan. He hates the idea of deigning to sit, of what it represents in terms of his denial of the extraordinary events of the evening. He should be securing the household, alerting the authorities and rallying the neighbors. “Did Uncle mention father’s death in his letter?”
“Then I prefer not to discuss it.” He plants himself resolutely upon the plush, soft cushions of the divan. “Let us discuss the letter. And this idea of a family business.”
His mother’s lips tighten, and he almost fancies she might be attempting to suppress a smile. She turns her desk chair to face him and sits. “You have been led to believe your Uncle Angus is a professor of Archaeology at Hysak University.”
“Are you intimating that he is not? That what I’ve been told is a lie?”
She offers him another girlish shrug, her head tilting slightly to the right. “More of a fabrication, darling. The fact is rather more…” She pauses, though Angus has a sense it is less a struggle to choose the right word than an attempt to build melodrama. “Amazing.” Her face lights up.
Perched on the very forward edge of the divan, Angus folds his hands neatly atop his knees. “More amazing than Archaeology?” And he is being only half sarcastic.
“Yes. He studies the occult.”
Angus pulls back his head and makes a face. “The occult?”
“You mean demonology and witchcraft and nonsense such as that?”
“Not nonsense, darling, as you saw for yourself tonight.”
“As I—” The objection dies in Angus’s throat. What had he seen? And heard? And smelt? A man in a mask. That was it. It had to be. There is no other explanation. And an old woman with a forked tongue and a nurse with a broom that swept emerald fire out of the air. Angus’s head begins to spin. His sweaty clothes turn cold against his skin.
“But there is so much more to it than those simple topics. The Arcane Brotherhood studies all manner of hidden knowledge, ancient and modern—”
“The Arcane Brotherhood?”
“The organization your uncle heads. A council of men—which, I suppose, is an unfortunate self-imposed limitation. Although your uncle has at least been willing to discuss the matter, which makes him some improvement over his predecessors.” She takes a breath and gives her head a slight shake to help refocus her thoughts. “The Brotherhood is many thousands of years old, began in Sumeria, by ancient scholars, as a way to defend against—”
“Darling, I know—”
“And spare me your dears and darlings. I’m not ten anymore.” He combs his right hand through his hair, pushing it back from his brow to hold it in a clenched fist. He stares at the carpet a moment before directing an accusatory gaze up at her. “This nonsense is quite unlike you, Agnes. We’ve always been honest with one another, haven’t we? That was the bargain we made after father’s death. When Imogene arrived. We were partners, together to the end.”
Her entire disposition alters as he speaks. Her spine straightens and her hands unclasp. She shows him a grim smile. The odor of cinnamon fades from the room. “Do I tell you enough how very proud I am of you?”
He gives his head a tremulous shake. “Speak plainly.”
“But I am. Darling. I may indulge the occasional endearment? You are my son. And even before your father’s death we were, for the most part, on our own. He was always off on Brotherhood business.” She executes another dismissive wave of her hand only to pause, as if, seeing the unseen something she has attempted to brush aside, she is surprised by the reaction it stirs within her. “Our partnership—meaning your father’s and mine—was more of an arrangement. A necessity, you might even say. And I daresay I enjoyed the greatest benefit. You and Imogene being foremost.
“Of course, the plan was always to raise a boy and a girl to continue a lineage that has stretched back through the ages. The boy to join the Brotherhood, and the girl to ensure that the line remains unbroken.” She pauses again, Angus suspecting, as before, to further dramatize the import of her words, but her expression turns suddenly quizzical. “Have you no comment?”
Angus stares, still unconvinced she hasn’t gone mad or decided to engage in some elaborate practical joke, though she has never been the humorous type nor been given to flights of fancy. But he has too many comments to voice any single one. Uncle Angus is not a professor of Archeology? Uncle and Father were members of some Occult Brotherhood? Angus and Imogene are part of some ancient plan? And what had that creature with the top hat and the tiger’s face been? Even more than his uncle’s profession being a lie and his and his sister’s fates apparently having been predetermined by long-dead ancestors, that hideous, hairy face troubles him. It flashes before him each time he blinks his eyes.
Only, that is not quite true. He’d glimpsed another face in the darkened street. A face even more impossible.
Instead she goes to the sideboard and pours two glasses of port. Carrying them back to the divan, she offers one to Angus.
“I haven’t had my dinner,” he objects feebly. He nevertheless takes it, cupping it in his hands.
Looking down at him, his mother samples her own tumbler, prompting him to do likewise. Satisfied, she crosses to the bell cord and gives it a tug. “Mrs. Patenaude is keeping a tray warm for you. I’m impressed you can eat.”
“I didn’t say that. I merely pointed out I hadn’t eaten.” Having tasted the port, he decides he wants more of it and drains his glass. He very nearly offers it back to her for a refill, but, having rung the kitchen she’s returned to her chair. Angus continues to cup the empty crystal tumbler in his hands. “That thing had a tiger’s face.”
She cocks her head. “I suppose that’s a fair assessment. Definitely feline, though most descriptions tend toward leonine.” She pins him suddenly with a glance. “You saw one, then? Up close, I mean? Not many can say that. They are quite deadly.”
“What are they?”
She shrugs. “Like most such creatures, they’ve acquired a variety of names. They’re quite well-known in India, where they’re called Rakshasa, according to your father.”
“Rakshasa.” The word means nothing to him. It sounds entirely as nonsensical as Miss Oberlan’s poem. In combination with this second mention of his father, however, it nudges some sleepy corner of his mind, a neglected bed of latent fantasies in which his father had long ago planted the seeds of dreams. What wonderful stories the man used to tell. All about growing up in exotic India, where run-ins with brigands and cobras and tigers were quite routine. Angus had determined to one day explore the far-flung corners of the world himself, to delve the depths of ancient ruins, to discover the secrets of lost civilizations. All, in hindsight, quite silly dreams, long-since relegated to the dustbin of youthful naiveté by the harsher realities of life, such as earning one’s keep and fulfilling one’s obligations. No globetrotting for a respectable gentleman, he can almost hear his employer saying. One works and provides and does not make a spectacle of himself. One certainly does not roam the city streets at night with a sword.
He draws an exaggerated breath. “That poor devil…”
“I take it you mean your mysterious interloper. The man with the sword?”
Angus looks up at her, making no attempt to hide his shame. “I abandoned him.”
She nods her head to one side. “I shouldn’t fret. The fact he was out at all after the precautions we took tells me he was no ordinary traveler. And of course the sword.” She sips some port.
Angus shakes his head. “Still, I—” Then, pausing, he stares. “What do you mean precautions?”
She half-turns in her chair, placing her glass upon the desk and taking up two pages of parchment. “Yes, well, that brings us back to your uncle’s letter. He explains that someone has decided to stop you joining the Brotherhood. He—”
Angus rises so quickly he feels momentarily lightheaded. “He what?”
She searches the letter. “Yes. He’s unclear about the source of his intelligence. Only stating that you must come at once and that every precaution—”
He crosses the floor to stand beside her, extending his hand. “May I see it?”
“Well, yes, of course, if you like.” But she doesn’t offer it to him. Instead she picks up an unopened envelope from the desk. She holds it out for Angus. “He sent one to you as well.”
Angus paces several halting steps away from her before tearing the envelope open. He fumbles to smooth the two sheets of handwritten parchment. The torn container drops to the floor. He continues to pace as he reads the fine, precise script he supposes must be his uncle’s.
My Dear Boy,
The time has arrived at last for you to join me! I do apologize for the rather abrupt summons, but the situation we find ourselves in is such that the usual pleasantries must be foregone. Still, one imagines that a hardy, inquisitive lad like yourself has been long since champing at the bit for the chance to make his way in the world. Your mother has written me great things about you and I confess I
am equally as eager as you that you should finally join
Please present yourself at once, to the Academia Arcana, at Hysak University in Villers, Illinois. The Arcane Brotherhood calls.
As you know, we are an ancient order devoted to chronicling the occult, and your place among us has been ordained since long before your birth. Nevertheless, you will begin as an Initiate and progress through the ranks in identical fashion to an ordinary recruit. The Brotherhood will provide for your basic means, so please pack lightly. (The weather in Illinois will turn quite cold in the coming months, so do include a sturdy winter coat, boots, and an appropriate assortment of insulated undergarments.)
I daresay your mother has told you many interesting facts about her strange brother. And, indeed, when last we met, I may have seemed quite odd. But my work—soon, also, to be your work—is such that when circumstances demand it take precedent, all other considerations are necessarily rendered quite superfluous.
But, again, I find myself writing in riddles when what you no doubt desire is clarity. Rest assured all will be explained when you arrive at the Academy. There is a process, developed over time, for initiating new brothers. You’ll find it benefits one to adhere to.
Angus reads the letter once through quickly and then scattershot, looking back over it, completely at a loss. “What is this nonsense?”
“Not nonsense, as we’ve established. What does he say?”
“He says I am to join him at once and, huzzah, how happy he is! It’s the letter of a lunatic inviting me to visit his asylum. He reminds me to pack long underwear.”
She laughs, lightly, wadding the envelope in her fist before crossing toward the dead fireplace to dispose of it. “Angus has always been quite devoted to his work.”
“And yet, like you, he is quite vague about what that work entails or whether it interests me.” He stops suddenly, staring into space.
“What’s the matter?”
He gives his head a quick savage shake. “I am to join him? I am expected to just leave my position at the library, to abandon Mr. Handy, to disrupt my life?”
His mother stiffens. She turns away from the fireplace to face him again. “I am afraid—”
“You’re afraid of what, Agnes?”
“Do not take that tone with me.”
She rises to her full height, straightening her shoulders and lifting her chin. For an instant, he feels the usual reflexive recoil he’s grown accustomed to whenever he’s considered defying her in the past. But he’s gained a good six inches on her, and is not the skinny child he had been. He squares his own shoulders and lifts his own, not insubstantial chin.
“This is madness. No, worse, it’s foolishness. I shall write Uncle and tell him I am unable to accept his invitation.”
But his mother does not back down. “Need I remind you of what transpired out on the street?”
“You do not,” he says, hearing for himself the slight tremor that enters his voice despite his most valiant effort. “I maintain that is a matter for the police and shall contact them myself.” He feels an urge to turn, storm from the room, grab his hat and go off at once, but manages to suppress the urge far better than he has his quivering voice. “First thing in the morning.”
“You won’t. Be reasonable, Angus.” When he starts to object, she raises a soothing hand. “Please, allow me to speak plainly, as you requested. The events of this evening are matters beyond the ken of civilized society. They are, in fact, the precise sort of occurrence for which the Brotherhood was established. You asked me about our precautions. Were the streets and houses not dark? Did you encounter anyone you knew? We did that to protect our neighbors. But were any of them questioned as to why they had so secured themselves, almost universally in opposition to how they might normally comport themselves of a late summer evening, a host of misgivings and questions would surely arise. Some might even experience a sort of traumatic—”
“Can you hear yourself?” Angus stares wide-eyed at his mother. She, whom he has always ranked as the most sensible of women, whom even Mr. Handy acknowledges as the rare example of capability among the fairer sex, is reciting lines from a fairytale.
“I can hear myself. And I am speaking the plain truth you requested. A rather severe sort of magic was cast over the neighborhood tonight. Given ample preparation, we would surely have found something less dangerous. But you had already left the library when your uncle’s letter arrived. And, for reasons we’ve yet to divine, no one could see into the Oberlan’s household. I was preparing to come for you myself, when Anabeth announced you’d left the Oberlan’s for home.”
He feels his face twist into an expression of befuddlement. “How could Anabeth—?”
“She was scrying for you.” She cocks her head suddenly. “You didn’t happen to notice anything strange while you were at the Oberlan’s? Their house was quite impenetrable even to Miss Devereaux.”
But Angus can also change the subject. “Miss Devereaux? Is she the great sorceress responsible for your severe magic?”
“A spell of the magnitude cast tonight took the combined efforts of the entire coven, naturally.”
“Sarcasm doesn’t suit you.”
“Nor does this phantasmagoria suit you.” Suddenly feeling the wind drain from his sails, he again seeks the safe port of the divan. His head bows toward his knees, and he presses his palms to his forehead. “This can not be happening.”
“It is. And until you reach the safety of the Academy, I fear you remain in grave danger.” She pauses, perhaps offering him a chance to respond. When he stays silently holding his head, she steps toward him and softens her tone. “We’re all quite safe here inside the pentacle. At least at present. But if what your uncle claims is true, that members of the Brotherhood have been corrupted and aligned themselves against—”
“Please, stop,” he moans, his voice devoid of all his previous resistance. He remains on the divan. His hands still cover his eyes. But he can not abide another word.
His mother hovers but otherwise acquiesces to his plea. Finally, he hears the rustle of her skirts as she moves back over toward her desk. He looks up as she settles in her chair, her back straight, her hands folded in her lap. She gazes across the room at him, clearly undeterred by any of his objections.
“You believe this,” he says.
“It’s all true, I’m afraid. Your uncle is the leader of a secret cabal of wizards and your mother is a witch.”
Despite their conciliatory tone, her words have a physical effect on him. His stomach lurches, and he covers his mouth, not wanting to soil the lovely crimson carpet.