Authors: Lev Grossman
Edward took another look around. The man had a point. The nearest house had to be ten miles back. Well, he was going to have to see this through sooner or later.
What's the worst that could happen? Don't answer that.
He climbed back into the car and closed the door.
The footman wasn't exaggerating: It took them at least half an hour to reach the house by car, let alone on foot, even though the chauffeur attacked the winding, intermittently paved road like it was the Autobahn. It was almost five in the morning, and sunrise was bearing down on them fast, and here and there along the way he could already distinguish artfully decayed tableaux through the twilight: a struggling orchard, a field full of neat hay-rolls, an Edward Gorey garden full of amorphous, poorly tended topiary. Edward sat up straight now, shoulders squared. The last thing he wanted was to be caught gaping at the scenery. Whatever happened, he was going to salvage as much of his dignity out of this as he could.
At one point the car screeched to a halt so abruptly that Edward almost banged his forehead against the seat in front of him. A stag was standing foursquare in the middle of the road, as if it had been waiting for them. The car's high beams bounced off its proud, furry white chest. The deer was huge, and Edward found it strangely unnervingâit must have wandered out of the Wents' famous deer park, he supposed, but it could have stepped directly out of the pages of the
The driver honked at it vainly, but the animal took its time getting out of their way, not at all intimidated by its mechanical adversary. It cocked its head away, as if it were receiving inaudible transmissions on its dark, spreading antlers, then turned back to stare at them. Its eyes seemed to seek out Edward alone with a message of lordly contempt.
Then they were moving again, and the road divided and became a wide, circular, white gravel driveway, embraced by a pair of open colonnades on either side. In the center of the circle stood a modest fountain, travertine nymphs and satyrs enacting some unreadable mythological allegory, with a tall, obtrusively masculine water god presiding sternly over the proceedings. At the head of it all stood the house itself. This time Edward waited for the car to stop for well and good before he got out. He let the footman open the door for him.
After all that, he thought, Weymarshe was nothing like his dog-eared mental snapshot of it. He was a little disappointed: It was a looming gray juggernaut of a house, more massive than grand, all bulk and no poise. He had a blurred impression of many columns, many windows, urns, ornamentsâthe house had acquired a neoclassical facade at some point in its historyâand a wide, shallow stone staircase below a large pair of double doors. It looked more like a university library than a mansion. Edward had half expected it to jibe with something in MOMUS, but no, he realized, the Artiste had never gotten this far. He'd never seen Weymarshe firsthand. Edward was in new territory.
A door opened. He thought she would come out through the big central doorsâthat's how he would have staged itâbut instead the Duchess emerged through a smaller one to the side; he supposed there must be some architectural term for it. She must have waited up for him, or gotten up early. She looked magnificent silhouetted against the warm light from inside the house.
He'd imagined her in evening wear, something royal and sweeping, but instead she wore a decidedly practical outfit: a long dark skirt, gloves, and a light overcoat against the chill. Her earrings were sensible studs.
In fact, he thought, she was dressed to travel.
“Edward.” She stopped and smiled a silly, chilly little smile, with the corners of her mouth only. “Well, well. You're the last person I expected to see here.”
He thought she was joking, but after a beat he saw that she was just telling the truth. She really was surprised to see him. He mounted the steps toward her. She was smaller than he remembered, her shoulders narrower, though the extra step she stood on made up for it. She was older, too, he thought ungallantly, then added quickly: but no less beautiful.
“Didn't Laura tell you?” he began. “She gave me the ticket you sent. My flight got in a few hours ago. We drove straight here.”
“Oh, Laura!” She waved her hand dismissively, effectively canceling the idea of Laura from the universe. “I heard what happened at the airport. I didn't think you'd really come after that fiasco. I mean, really. Poor strategy, poor tactics.” She shook her head sadly. “Poor taste!”
The Duchess took a step forward but stumbled over the first step and put a gloved hand against his shirt front for balance. He smelled her breath, and he realized in a cold flash that she was truly and profoundly drunk.
“Well,” he said, with forced breeziness, “now that I'm here, maybe you could show me around.”
He offered her his arm. The cold air was trying to steal his voice. He couldn't catch his breath.
“I don't think we'll have time for that. Dennis?” Apparently she meant the chinless driver, because he turned around. “Is everything ready?”
“Ready Freddy,” came the jaunty reply. “Your Grace.”
Belatedly the Duchess took his arm, but her attention was clearly elsewhere. She looked past him to where the footmen were now fussing over her multifarious green leather luggage, which stood in heaps along the top step in the luminous pre-dawn light. A bird cheeped. Weymarshe was built on a slight natural rise, affording Edward a sweeping view of the grounds, and they looked out at them together, standing side by side for all the world like the lord and lady of the manor. The sky was now a lush, luminous blue, the bluest blue he had ever seen, and the lawn and the driveway and the marble fountain seemed to be washed in pure indigo ink.
“The truth is, Edward, I was just on my way out,” she said. “I'll have to leave you all
on your lonesome,
as you charming Americans say.”
For that one phrase, “on your lonesome,” she hazarded a Texan accent.
“Where are you going?”
“I'm going away, Edward.” The Duchess cut her eyes toward the waiting chauffeurs. “Far away. Truth to tell, it's high time I took a vacation. God, I need some time away from here.”
She looked around at Weymarshe, her lip practically curling with disgust.
“You're really going?” Edward said. He tried to force her to meet his eyes. “But what about the codex? What are we going to do about the Duke?”
The blow arrived out of nowhere. It was a serious slap, not just for show, a quick hard right with some shoulder in it, and it left his ear ringing.
“How could you come here? How?” Her face was suddenly close to his, and her breath was thick with gin and expensive cigarette smoke and contempt. “He'll kill me, do you know that? And Laura, too. If he can catch us. You've ruined us both!”
She drew herself up, her nostrils white and flaring. She was shaking, but her voice was steady as ever.
“It's over. Don't you see that? I suppose it's not the American style, but where I'm from we know how to make a decent exit. Nothing worse than a loser who won't admit it.”
And as suddenly as it came the storm was past. She was herself again. Mercurial as ever, the Duchess quirked her eyebrows at him.
The Duchess quirked her eyebrows at him.
“What is it?” she asked. “You want to come along, is that it?”
Edward shook his head.
“I think I've had enough time off for now.”
She leaned toward him, evidently meaning to give him a kiss on the cheek, but he stopped her with a firm, assertive forearm. There would be none of that. He was a slow learner by any standards, but if he'd learned nothing else from all this, he'd learned that much.
“It's just as well,” the Duchess said, straightening up. “Where we're going I don't suppose they'd let you in anyway.”
She turned away abruptly and trippedâalmost literallyâthe rest of the way down the steps to the waiting limousine. The chinless chauffeur opened the door for her. She paused on the threshold andâdid he imagine it?ârested her hand for a moment on the chauffeur's ill-shaven cheek before she half stepped, half fell into the darkness inside, and it swallowed her up.
Edward watched the car go. He jogged a few steps to one side so he could see past the fountain in the middle of the driveway, following the ruby taillights as they receded along the road down which he had just come, two pale ruts with a crest of green between them, exquisitely groomed and straight as a ruler. He put his hand in his jacket pocket and fingered his good silk tie. Now he wished he'd remembered to put it on before he saw her, but it was too late. The Duchess was running away, he thought, and he wondered if she would ever be able to stop running now. He doubted it, but the truth was, he would probably never know. The endgame of this match would be played without him.
He sat down on the cold stone steps. He still had the bag with the case for the codex in it, and he set it on his knees. Was it really empty? Tiny brave crickets chirped deafeningly in the grass. Had Margaret found that copy of Lydgate she was looking for after all? Maybe that would be his consolation prize. He flipped the latch and was faced once again with the gnarled black cover.
The hollow inside wasn't empty. It was full of paper, but it wasn't the codex, or Lydgate, or any book at all. It was full of bills, a hundred dollars each, in stacks ofâhe thumbed one and took a well-educated guessâa hundred each, fifty stacks in all. Five hundred thousand dollars, give or take a few hundred either way. It must have been Margaret's price. Well, she always had been a good negotiator, and knowing her it was the full amount. She'd said it wasn't about the money, and he supposed she must have been telling the truth. He thought about making some kind of grand gesture with itâtearing it up, maybe, or scattering the bills across the lawn like leaves, or burning them on the steps of Weymarsheâbut instead he tucked them safely back in the box and put it away. Edward felt a newly pragmatic mood coming over him.
He looked up at the tops of the trees and the sky arching up over him. He felt like he was waking up from a dream. The air smelled like autumn, and the sky was now a rosy-gray color like the inside of a seashell. He hugged his arms across his chest. It was cold, but it would get warmer as the sun rose. He would have to start carrying a flask of Scotch with him for occasions like this, Edward decided. To his surprise he felt almost pleasantly numb inside. He looked over his shoulder: Behind him invisible hands had closed the door through which the Duchess had come, and the stone facade of Weymarshe was as lightless and dead as an Easter Island head. The blankness of Edward's mind was like the blankness of the endpapers at the end of a long, long book. He wondered idly if anything interesting would ever happen to him again.
There were still a few stars visible, and he could sense the cold winter constellations lying in wait below the horizon, just out of sight, ready to rise. It was funny to think that they were still expecting him at the office tomorrow morning, he thought. Early, before the markets opened. He pulled the lapels of his jacket tighter around him, but the chilly fall air cut right through the thin fabric. It was even funnier to think that he would probably be there.
magazine's book critic and the author of
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