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When Victoria was the Queen of England, there was a small, unprepossessing school for the children of expatriate Englishmen that had quite an interesting reputation in the shoddy Whitechapel neighborhood on which it bordered, a reputation that kept the students safer than all the bobbies in London.
Once, a young, impoverished beggar-girl named Nan Killian had obtained leftovers at the back gate, and most of the other waifs and gutter-rats of the neighborhood shunned the place, though they gladly shared in Nan's bounty when she dared the gate and its guardian.
But now another child picked up food at the back gate of the Harton School For Boys and Girls on the edge of Whitechapel in London, not Nan Killian. Children no longer shunned the back gate of the school, although they treated its inhabitants with extreme caution. Adultsparticularly the criminal, disreputable criminals who preyed on childrentreated the place and its inhabitants with a great deal more than mere caution. Word had gotten around that two child-pimps had tried to take one of the pupils, and had been found with arms and legs broken, beaten senseless. Word had followed that anyone who threatened another child protected by the school would be found deadif he was found at all.
The two tall, swarthy "blackfellas" who served as the school's guards were rumored to have strange powers, or be members of the thugee cult, or worse. It was safer just to pretend the school didn't exist and go about one's unsavory business elsewhere.
Nan Killian was no longer a child of the streets; she was now a pupil at the school herself, a transmutation that astonished her every morning when she awoke. To find herself in a neat little dormitory room, papered with roses, curtained in gingham, made her often feel as if she was dreaming. To then rise with the other girls, dress in clean, fresh clothing, and go off to lessons in the hitherto unreachable realms of reading and writing was more than she had ever dared dream of.
Her best friend was still Sarah, the little girl from Africa who had brought her that first basket of leftovers. But now she slept in the next bed over from Sarah's, and they shared many late-night giggles and confidences, instead of leftover tea-bread.
Nan also had a job; she had discovered, somewhat to her own bemusement, that the littlest children instinctively trusted her and would obey her when they obeyed no-one else. So Nan "paid" for her tutoring and keep by helping Nadra, the babies' nurse, or "ayah," as they all called her. Nadra was from India, as were most of the servants, from the formidable guards, the Sikh Karamjit and the Gurkha Selim, to the cook, Maya. Mrs. Helen Hartonor Mem'sab, as everyone called herand her husband had once been expatriates in India themselves. Master Hartoncalled, with ultimate respect, Sahib Hartonnow worked as an advisor to an import firm; his service in India had left him with a small pension, and a permanent limp. When he and his wife had returned and had learned quite by accident of the terrible conditions children returned to England often lived in, they had resolved that the children of their friends back in the Punjab, at least, would not have that terrible knowledge thrust upon them.
Here the children sent away in bewilderment by anxious parents fearing that they would sicken in the hot foreign lands found, not a cold and alien place with nothing they recognized, but the familiar sounds of Hindustani, the comfort and coddling of a native nanny, and the familiar curries and rice to eat. Their new home, if a little shabby, held furniture made familiar from their years in the bungalows. But most of all, they were not told coldly to "be a man" or "stop being a crybaby"for here they found friendly shoulders to weep out their homesickness on. If there were no French Masters here, there was a great deal of love and care; if the furniture was unfashionable and shabby, the children were well-fed and rosy.
It never ceased to amaze Nan that more parents didn't send their children to the Harton School, but some folks mistakenly trusted relatives to take better care of their precious ones than strangers, and some thought that a school owned and operated by someone with a lofty reputation or a title was a wiser choice for a boy-child who would likely join the Civil Service when he came of age. And as for the girls, there would always be those who felt that lessons by French dancing-masters and language teachers, lessons on the harp and in water-color painting, were more valuable than a sound education in the same basics given to a boy.
Sometimes these parents learned their lessons the hard way.
"Ready for m'lesson, Mem'sab," Nan called into the second-best parlor, which was Mem'sab's private domain. It was commonly understood that sometimes Mem'sab had to do odd things"Important things that we don't need to know about," Sarah said wiselyand she might have to do them at a moment's notice. So it was better to announce oneself at the door before venturing over the threshold.
But today Mem'sab was only reading a book, and looked up at Nan with a smile that transformed her plain face and made her eyes bright and beautiful.
By now Nan had seen plenty of ladies who dressed in finer stuffs than Mem'sab's simple Artistic gown of common stuffs, made bright with embroidery courtesy of Maya. Nan had seen ladies who were acknowledged Beauties like Mrs. Lillie Langtry, ladies who obviously spent many hours in the hands of their dressers and hairdressers rather than pulling their hair up into a simple chignon from which little curling strands of brown-gold were always escaping. Mem'sab's jewelry was not of diamonds and gold, but odd, heavy pieces in silver and semi-precious gems. But in Nan's eyes, not one of those ladies was worth wasting a single glance upon.
Then again, Nan was a little prejudiced.
"Come in, Nan," the Headmistress said, patting the flowered sofa beside her invitingly. "You're doing much better already, you know. You have a quick ear."
"Thenkee, Mem'sab," Nan replied, flushing with pleasure. She, like any of the servants, would gladly have laid down her life for Mem'sab Harton; they all worshipped her blatantly, and a word of praise from their idol was worth more than a pocketful of sovereigns. Nan sat gingerly down on the chintz-covered sofa and smoothed her clean pinafore with an unconscious gesture of pride.
Mem'sab took a book of etiquette from the table beside her, and opened it, looking at Nan expectantly. "Go ahead, dear."
"Good morning, ma'am. How do you do? I am quite well. I trust your family is fine," Nan began, and waited for Mem'sab's response, which would be her cue for the next polite phrase. The point here was not that Nan needed to learn manners and mannerly speech, but that she needed to lose the dreadful cadence of the streets which would doom her to poverty forever, quite literally. Nan spoke the commonplace phrases slowly and with great care, as much care as Sarah took over her French. An accurate analogy, since the King's English, as spoken by the middle and upper classes, was nearly as much a foreign language to Nan as French and Latin were to Sarah.
She had gotten the knack of it by thinking of it exactly as a foreign language, once Mem'sab had proven to her how much better others would treat her if she didn't speak like a guttersnipe. She was still fluent in the language of the streets, and often went out with Karamjit as a translator when he went on errands that took him into the slums or Chinatown. But gradually her tongue became accustomed to the new cadences, and her habitual speech marked her less as "untouchable."
"Beautifully done," Mem'sab said warmly, when Nan finished her recitation. "Your new assignment will be to pick a poem and recite it to me, properly spoken, and memorized."
"I think I'd loikeliketo do one uv Mr. Kipling's, Mem'sab," Nan said shyly.
Mem'sab laughed. "I hope you aren't thinking of `Gunga Din,' you naughty girl!" the woman mock-chided. "It had better be one from the Jungle Book, or Puck of Pook's Hill, not something written in Cockney dialect!"
"Yes, Mem'sab, I mean, no, Mem'sab," Nan replied quickly. "I'll pick a right'un. Mebbe the lullaby for the White Seal?" Ever since discovering Rudyard Kipling's stories, Nan had been completely enthralled; Mem'sab often read them to the children as a go-to-bed treat, for the stories often evoked memories of India for the children sent away.
"That will do very well. Are you ready for the other lesson?" Mem'sab asked, so casually that no one but Nan would have known that the "other lesson" was one not taught in any other school in this part of the world.
"Ithink so." Nan got up and closed the parlor door, signaling to all the world that she and Mem'sab were not to be disturbed unless someone was dying or the house was burning down.
For the next half hour, Mem'sab turned over cards, and Nan called out the next card before she turned it over. When the last of the fifty-two lay in the face-up pile before her, Nan waited expectantly for the results.
"Not at all bad; you had almost half of them, and all the colors right," Mem'sab said with content. Nan was disappointed; she knew that Mem'sab could call out all fifty-two without an error, though Sarah could only get the colors correctly.
"Sahib brought me some things from the warehouse for you to try your `feeling' on," Mem'sab continued. "I truly think that is where you true Gifts lie, dear."
Nan sighed mournfully. "But knowin' the cards would be a lot more useful," she complained.
"What, so you can grow up to cheat foolish young men out of their inheritances?" Now Mem'sab actually laughed out loud. "Try it, dear, and the Gift will desert you at the time you need it most! No, be content with what you have and learn to use it wisely, to help yourself and others."
"But card-sharpin' would help me, an' I could use takin's to help others," Nan couldn't resist protesting, but she held out her hand for the first object anyway.
It was a carved beetle; very interesting, Nan thought, as she waited to "feel" what it would tell her. It felt like pottery or stone, and it was of a turquoise-blue, shaded with pale brown. "It's old," she said finally. Then, "Really old. Old asMethusalum! It was made for an important man, but not a king or anything."
She tried for more, but couldn't sense anything else. "That's all," she said, and handed it back to Mem'sab.
"Now this." The carved beetle that Mem'sab gave her was, for all intents and purposes, identical to the one she'd just held, but immediately Nan sensed the difference.
"Piff! That 'un's new!" She also felt something else, something of intent, a sensation she readily identified since it was one of the driving forces behind commerce in Whitechapel. "Feller as made it figgers he's put one over on somebody."
"Excellent, dear!" Mem'sab nodded. "They are both scarabs, a kind of good-luck carving found with mummieswhich are, indeed, often as old as Methuselah. The first one I knew was real, as I helped unwrap the mummy myself. The second, however, was from a shipment that Sahib suspected were fakes."
Nan nodded, interested to learn that this Gift of hers had some practical application after all. "So could be I could tell people when they been gammoned?"
"Very likely, and quite likely that they would pay you for the knowledge, as long as they don't think that you are trying to fool them as well. Here, try this." The next object placed in Nan's hand was a bit of jewelry, a simple silver brooch with "gems" of cut iron. Nan dropped it as soon as it touched her hand, overwhelmed by fear and horror.
"Lummy!" she cried, without thinking. "He killed her!"
Who "they" were, she had no sense of; that would require more contact, which she did not want to have. But Mem'sab didn't seem at all surprised; she just shook her head very sadly and put the brooch back in a little box which she closed without a word.
She held out a child's locket on a worn ribbon. "Don't be afraid, Nan," she coaxed, when Nan was reluctant to accept it, "This one isn't bad, I promise you."
Nan took the locket gingerly, but broke out into a smile when she got a feeling of warmth, contentment, and happiness. She waited for other images to come, and sensed a tired, but exceedingly happy woman, a proud man, and oneno, two strong and lively mites with the woman.
Slyly, Nan glanced up at her mentor. "She's 'ad twins, 'asn't she?" Nan asked. "When was it?"
"I just got the letter and the locket today, but it was about two months ago," Mem'sab replied. "The lady is my best friend's daughter, who was given that locket by her mother for luck just before the birth of her children. She sent it to me to have it duplicated, as she would like to present one to each little girl."
"I'd 'ave it taken apart, an' put half of th' old 'un with half of the new 'un," Nan suggested, and Mem'sab brightened at the idea.
"An excellent idea, and I will do just that. Now, dear, are you feeling tired? Have you a headache? We've gone on longer than we did at your last lesson."
Nan nodded, quite ready to admit to both.
Mem'sab gave her still-thin shoulders a little hug, and sent her off to her afternoon lessons.
Figuring came harder to Nan than reading; she'd already had some letters before she had arrived, enough to spell out the signs on shops and stalls and the like and make out a word here and there on a discarded broadsheet. When the full mystery of letters had been disclosed to her, mastery had come as naturally as breathing, and she was already able to read her beloved Kipling stories with minimal prompting. But numbers were a mystery arcane, and she struggled with the youngest of the children to comprehend what they meant. Anything past one hundred baffled her for the moment, and Sarah did her best to help her friend.
After arithmetic came geography, but for a child to whom Kensington Palace was the end of the universe, it was harder to believe in the existence of Arabia than of Fairyland, and Heaven was quite as real and solid as South America, for she reckoned that she had an equal chance of seeing either. As for how all those odd names and shapes fit together . . . well!
History came easier, although she didn't yet grasp that it was as real as yesterday, for to Nan it was just a chain of linking stories. Perhaps that was why she loved the Kipling stories so much, for she often felt as out-of-place as Mowgli when the human-tribe tried to reclaim him.
At the end of lessons Nan usually went to help Nadra in the nursery; the children there, ranging in age from two to five, were a handful when it came to getting them bathed and put to bed. They tried to put off bedtime as long as possible; there were a half-dozen of them, which was just enough that when Nadra had finally gotten two of them into a bathtub, the other four had escaped, and were running about the nursery like dripping, naked apes, screaming joyfully at their escape.
But tonight, Karamjit came for Nan and Sarah as soon as the history lesson was over, summoning them with a look and a gesture. As always, the African parrot Grey sat on Sarah's shoulder; she was so well-behaved, even to the point of being housebroken, that he was allowed to be with her from morning to night. The handsome grey parrot with the bright red tail had adapted very well to this new sort of jungle when Sarah's mother brought her to her daughter; Sarah was very careful to keep her warm and out of drafts, and she ate virtually the same food that she did. Mem'sab seemed to understand the kind of diet that let her thrive; she allowed her only a little of the chicken and beef, and made certain that she filled up on carrots and other vegetables before she got any of the curried rice she loved so much. In fact, she often pointed to Grey as an example to the other children who would rather have had sweets than green stuffs, telling them that Grey was smarter than they were, for she knew what would make her grow big and strong. Being unfavorably compared to a bird often made the difference with the little boys in particular, who were behaving better at table since the parrot came to live at the school.
So Grey came along when Karamjit brought them to the door of Mem'sab's parlor, cautioning them to wait quietly until Mem'sab called them.
"What do you suppose can be going on?" Sarah asked curiously, while Grey turned her head to look at Nan with her penetrating pale-yellow eyes.
Nan shushed her, pressing her ear to the keyhole to see what she could hear. "There's another lady in there with Mem'sab, and she sounds sad," Nan said at last.
Grey cocked her head to one side, then turned his head upside down as she sometimes did when something puzzled her. "Hurt," she said quietly, and made a little sound like someone crying.
Nan had long since gotten used to the fact that Grey noticed everything that went on around her and occasionally commented on it like a human person. If the wolves in the Jungle Book could think and talk, she reasoned, why not a parrot? She accepted Grey's abilities as casually as Sarah, who had raised her herself and had no doubt of the intelligence of her feathered friend.
Had either of them acquired the "wisdom" of their elders, they might have been surprised that Mem'sab accepted those abilities too.
Nan jumped back as footsteps warned her that the visitor had risen and was coming towards the door; she and Sarah pressed themselves back against the wall as the strange woman passed them, her face hidden behind a veil. She took no notice of the children, but turned back to Mem'sab.
"Katherine, I believe going to this woman is a grave mistake on your part," Mem'sab told her quietly. "You and I have been friends since we were in school together; you know that I would never advise you against anything you felt so strongly about unless I thought you might be harmed by it. This woman does you no good."
The woman shook her head. "How could I be harmed by it?" she replied, her voice trembling. "What possible ill could come of this?"
"A very great deal, I fear," Mem'sab, her expression some combination of concern and other emotions that Nan couldn't read.
Impulsively, the woman reached out for Mem'sab's hand. "Then come with me!" she cried. "If this woman cannot convince you that she is genuine, and that she provides me with what I need more than breath, then I will not see her again."
Mem'sab's eyes looked keenly into her friend's, easily defeating the concealment of the veil about her features. "You are willing to risk her unmasking as a fraud, and the pain for you that will follow?"
"I am certain enough of her that I know that you will be convinced, even against your will," the woman replied with certainty.
Mem'sab nodded. "Very well, then. You and Iand these two girlswill see her together."
Only now did the woman notice Sarah and Nan, and her brief glance dismissed them as unimportant. "I see no reason why you wish to have children along, but if you can guarantee they will behave, and that is what it takes you to be convinced to see Madame Varonsky, then so be it. I will have an invitation sent to you for the next seance."
Mem'sab smiled, and patted her friend's hand. "Sometimes children see things more clearly than we adults do," was all she replied. "I will be waiting for that invitation."
The woman squeezed Mem'sab's hand, then turned and left, ushered out by one of the native servants. Mem'sab gestured to the two girls to precede her into the parlor, and shut the door behind them.
"What did you think of the lady, Nan?" asked their teacher, as the two children took their places side-by-side, on the loveseat they generally shared when they were in the parlor together.
Nan assessed the woman as would any street-child; economics came first. "She's in mournin' an' she's gentry," Nan replied automatically. "Silk gowns fer mournin' is somethin' only gentry kin afford. I 'spect she's easy t' gammon, too; paid no attention t'us, an' I was near enough t' get me hand into 'er purse an' her never knowin' till she was home. An' she didn' ask fer a cab t' be brung, so's I reckon she keeps 'er carriage. That's not jest gentry, tha's quality."
"Right on all counts, my dear," Mem'sab said, a bit grimly. "Katherine has no more sense than one of the babies, and never had. Her parents didn't spoil her, but they never saw any reason to educate her in practical matters. They counted on her finding a husband who would do all her thinking for her, and as a consequence, she is pliant to any hand that offers mastery. She married into money; her husband has a very high position in the Colonial Government. Nothing but the best school would do for her boy, and a spoiled little lad he was, too."
Grey suddenly began coughing, most realistically, a series of terrible, racking coughs, and Sarah turned her head to look into her eyes. Then she turned back to Mem'sab. "He's dead, isn't he?" the child said, quite matter-of-factly. "He got sick, and died. That's who she's in mourning for."
"Quite right, and as Grey showed us, he caught pneumonia." Mem'sab looked grim. "Poor food, icy rooms, and barbaric treatment" She threw up her hands, and shook her head. "There's no reason to go on; at least Katherine has decided to trust her twins to us instead of the school her husband wanted. She'll bring them to Nadra tomorrow, Nan, and they'll probably be terrified, so I'm counting on you to help Nadra soothe them."
Nan could well imagine that they would be terrified; not only were they being left with strangers, but they would know, at least dimly, that their brother had come away to school and died. They would be certain that the same was about to happen to them.
"That, however, is not why I sent for you," Mem'sab continued. "Katherine is seeing a medium; do either of you know what that is?"
Sarah and Nan shook their heads, but Grey made a rude noise. Sarah looked shocked, but Nan giggled and Mem'sab laughed.
"I am afraid that Grey is correct in her opinions, for the most part," the woman told them. "A medium is a person who claims to speak with the dead, and help the souls of the dead speak to the living." Her mouth compressed, and Nan sensed her carefully controlled anger. "All this is accomplished for a very fine fee, I might add."
"Ho! Like them gypsy palm-readers, an' the conjure-men!" Nan exclaimed in recognition. "Aye, there's a mort'a gammon there, and that's sure. You reckon this lady's been gammoned, then?"
"Yes I do, and I would like you twothree" she amended, with a penetrating look at Grey, "to help me prove it. Nan, if there is trickery afoot, do you think you could catch it?"
Nan had no doubt. "I bet I could," she said. "Can't be harder'n keepin' a hand out uv yer pocketor grabbin' the wrist once it's in."
"Good girlyou must remember to speak properly, and only when you're spoken to, though," Mem'sab warned her. "If this so-called medium thinks you are anything but a gently-reared child, she might find an excuse to dismiss the seance." She turned to Sarah. "Now, if by some incredible chance this woman is genuine, could you and Grey tell?"
Sarah's head bobbed so hard her curls tumbled into her eyes. "Yes, Mem'sab," she said, with as much confidence as Nan. "M'luko, the Medicine Man that gave me Grey, said that Grey could tell when the spirits were there, and someday I might, too."
"Did he, now?" Mem'sab gave her a curious look. "How interesting! Well, if Grey can tell us if there are spirits or not, that will be quite useful enough for our purposes. Are either of you afraid to go with me? I expect the invitation will come quite soon." Again, Mem'sab had that grim look. "Katherine is too choice a fish to be allowed to swim free for long; the Madame will want to keep her under her control by `consulting' with her as often as possible."
Sarah looked to Nan for guidance, and Nan thought that her friend might be a little fearful, despite her brave words. But Nan herself only laughed. "I ain't afraid of nobody's sham ghost," she said, curling her lip scornfully. "An' I ain't sure I'd be afraid uv a real one."
"Wisely said, Nan; spirits can only harm us as much as we permit them to." Nan thought that Mem'sab looked relieved, like maybe she hadn't wanted to count on their help until she actually got it. "Thank you, both of you." She reached out and took their hands, giving them a squeeze that said a great deal without words. "Now, both of you get back to whatever it was that I took you from. I will let you know in plenty of time when our excursion will be."
It was past the babies' bed-time, so Sarah and Nan went together to beg Maya for their delayed tea, and carried the tray themselves up to the now-deserted nursery. They set out the tea-things on one of the little tables, feeling a mutual need to discuss Mem'sab's strange proposition.
Grey had her tea, too; a little bowl of curried rice, carrots, and beans. They set it down on the table and Grey climbed carefully down from Sarah's shoulder to the table-top, where she selected a bean and ate it neatly, holding in on one claw while she took small bites, watching them both.
"Do you think there might be real ghosts?" Sarah asked immediately, shivering a little. "I mean, what if this lady can bring real ghosts up?"
Grey and Nan made the same rude noise at the same time; it was easy to tell where Grey had learned it. "Garn!" Nan said scornfully. "Reckon that Mem'sab only ast if you could tell as an outside bet. But the livin' people might be the ones as is dangerous." She ate a bite of bread-and-butter thoughtfully. "I dunno as Mem'sab's thought that far, but that Missus Katherine's a right easy mark, an' a fat 'un, too. People as is willin' t' gammon the gentry might not be real happy about bein' found out."
Sarah nodded. "Should we tell Karamjit?" she asked, showing a great deal more common sense than she would have before Nan came into her life. "Mem'sab's thinking hard about her friend, but she might not think a bit about herself."
"Aye, an' Selim an' mebbe Sahib, too." Nan was a little dubious about that, having only seen the lordly Sahib from a distance.
"I'll ask Selim to tell Sahib, if you'll talk to Karamjit," Sarah said, knowing the surest route to the Master from her knowledge of the School and its inhabitants. "But tell me what to look for! Three sets of eyes are better than two."
"Fust thing, whatever they want you t' look at is gonna be what makes a fussnoises or voices or whatever," Nan said after a moment of thought. "I dunno how this medium stuff is gonna work, but that's what happens when a purse gets nicked. You gotta get the mark's attention, so he won't be thinkin' of his pocket. So whatever they want us to look at, we look away from. That's the main thing. Mebbe Mem'sab can tell us what these things is s'pposed to be likeif I know what's t' happen, I kin guess what tricks they're like t' pull." She finished her bread and butter, and began her own curry; she'd quickly acquired a taste for the spicy Indian dishes that the other children loved. "If there ain't ghosts, I bet they got somebody dressed up t' look like one." She grinned slyly at Grey. "An' I betcha a good pinch or a bite would make 'im yell proper!"
"And you couldn't hurt a real ghost with a pinch." Sarah nodded. "I suppose we're just going to have to watch and wait, and see what we can do."
Nan, as always, ate as a street-child would, although her manners had improved considerably since coming to the School; she inhaled her food rapidly, so that no one would have a chance to take it from her. She was already finished, although Sarah hadn't eaten more than half of her tea. She put her plates aside on the tray, and propped her head up on her hands with her elbows on the table. "We got to talk to Karamjit an' Selim, that's the main thing," she said, thinking out loud. "They might know what we should do."
"Selim will come home with Sahib," Sarah answered, "But Karamjit is probably leaving the basket at the back gate right now, and if you run, you can catch him alone."
Taking that as her hint, for Sarah had a way of knowing where most people were at any given time, Nan jumped to her feet and ran out of the nursery and down the back stairs, flying through the kitchen, much to the amusement of the cook, Maya. She burst through the kitchen door, and ran down the path to the back gate, so quickly she hardly felt the cold at all, though she had run outside without a coat. Mustafa swept the garden paths free of snow every day, but so soon after Boxing Day there were mounds of the stuff on either side of the path, snow with a faint tinge of gray from the soot that plagued London in almost every weather.
Nan saw the Sikh, Karamjit, soon enough to avoid bouncing off his legs. The tall, dark, immensely dignified man was bundled up to the eyes in a heavy quilted coat and two mufflers, his head wrapped in a dark brown turban. Nan no longer feared him, though she respected him as only a street child who has seen a superior fighter in action could. "Karamjit!" she called, as she slowed her headlong pace. "I need t' talk wi' ye!"
There was an amused glint in the Sikh's dark eyes, though only much association with him allowed Nan to see it. "And what does Missy Nan wish to speak of that she comes racing out into the cold like the wind from the mountains?"
"Mem'sab ast us t' help her with somethin'there's this lady as is a meedeeyum that she thinks is gammonin' her friend. Wetha's Sarah an' Grey an' mewe says a'course, but" Here Nan stopped, because she wasn't entirely certain how to tell an adult that she thought another adult didn't know what she was getting herself into. "I just got a bad feelin'," she ended, lamely.
But Karamjit did not belittle her concerns, nor did he chide her. Instead, his eyes grew even darker, and he nodded. "Come inside, where it is warm," he said, "I wish you to tell me more."
He sat her down at the kitchen table, and gravely and respectfully asked Maya to serve them both tea. He took his with neither sugar nor cream, but saw to it that Nan's was heavily sweetened and at least half milk. "Now," he said, after she had warmed herself with the first sip, "Tell me all."
Nan related everything that had happened from the time he came to take both of them to the parlor to when she had left Sarah to find him. He nodded from time to time, as he drank tea and unwound himself from his mufflers and coat.
"I believe this," he said when she had finished. "I believe that Mem'sab is a wise, good, and brave woman. I also believe that she does not think that helping her friend will mean any real danger. But the wise, the good, and the brave often do not think as the mean, the bad, and the cowardly dothe jackals that feed on the pain of others will turn to devour those who threaten their meal. And a man can die from the bite of a jackal as easily as that of a tiger."
"So you think my bad feelin' was right?" Nan's relief was total; not that she didn't trust Mem'sab, butMem'sab didn't know the kind of creatures that Nan did.
"Indeed I dobut I believe that it would do no good to try to persuade Mem'sab that she should not try to help her friend." Karamjit smiled slightly, the barest lifting of the corners of his mouth. "Nevertheless, Sahib will know how best to protect her without insulting her great courage." He placed one of his long, brown hands on Nan's shoulder. "You may leave it in our hands, Missy Nanthough we may ask a thing or two of you, that we can do our duty with no harm to Mem'sab's own plans. For now, though, you may simply rely upon us."
"Thenkee, Karamjit," Nan sighed. He patted her shoulder, then unfolded his long legs and rose from his chair with a slight bow to Maya. Then he left the kitchen, allowing Nan to finish her tea and run back up to the nursery, to give Sarah and Grey the welcome news that they would not be the only ones concerned with the protection of Mem'sab from the consequences of her own generous nature.
Sahib took both Nan and Sarah aside just before bedtime, after Karamjit and Selim had been closeted with him for half an hour. "Can I ask you two to come to my study with me for a bit?" he asked quietly. He was often thought to be older than Mem'sab, by those who were deceived by the streaks of grey at each temple, the stiff way that he walked, and the odd expression in his eyes, which seemed to Nan to be the eyes of a man who had seen so much that nothing surprised him anymore. Nan had trusted him the moment that she set eyes on him, although she couldn't have said why.
"So long as Nadra don't fuss," Nan replied for both of them. Sahib smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
"I have already made it right with Nadra," he promised. "Karamjit, Selim, and Mem'sab are waiting for us."
Nan felt better immediately, for she really hadn't wanted to go sneaking around behind Mem'sab's back. From the look that Sarah gave her, Nan reckoned that she felt the same.
"Thank you, sir," Sarah said politely. "We will do just as you say."
Very few of the children had ever been inside the sacred precincts of Sahib's office; the first thing that struck Nan was that it did not smell of tobacco, but of sandalwood and cinnamon. That surprised her; most of the men she knew smoked although their womenfolk disapproved of the habit, but evidently Sahib did not, not even in his own private space.
There was a tiger-skin on the carpet in front of the fire, the glass eyes in its head glinting cruelly in a manner unnerving and lifelike. Nan shuddered, and thought of Shere Khan, with his taste for man-cub. Had this been another terrible killer of the jungle? Did tigers leave vengeful ghosts?
Heavy, dark drapes of some indeterminate color shut out the cold night. Hanging on the walls, which had been papered with faded gold arabesque upon a ground of light brown, was a jumble of mementos from Sahib's life in India: crossed spears, curious daggers and swords, embroidered tapestries of strange characters twined with exotic flowers and birds, carved plaques of some heavy, dark wood inlaid with brass, bizarre masks that resembled nothing less than brightly painted demons. On the desk and adorning the shelves between the books were statues of half- and fully-naked gods and goddesses, more bits of carving in wood, stone, and ivory. Bookshelves built floor-to-ceiling held more books than Nan had known existed. Sahib took his place behind his desk, while Mem'sab perched boldly on the edge of it. Selim and Karamjit stood beside the fire like a pair of guardian statues themselves, and Sahib gestured to the children to take their places on the over-stuffed chairs on either side of the fireplace. Nan waited tensely, wondering if Mem'sab was going to be angry because they went to others with their concerns. Although it had not fallen out so here, she was far more used to being in trouble over something she had done than in being encouraged for it, and the reflexes were still in place.
"Karamjit tells me that you four share some concern over my planned excursion to the medium, Nan," Mem'sab said, with a smile that told Nan she was not in trouble for her meddling, as she had feared. "They went first to Sahib, but as we never keep secrets from one another, he came to me. And I commend all four of you for your concern and caution, for after some discussion, I was forced to agree with it."
"And I would like to commend both of you, Nan, Sarah, for having the wisdom to go to an adult with your concerns," added Sahib, with a kindly nod to both of them that Nan had not expected in the least. "That shows great good sense, and please, continue to do so in the future."
"I thoughtI was afeared" Nan began, then blurted out all that she'd held in check. "Mem'sab is 'bout the smartest, goodest lady there is, but she don't know bad people! Me, I know! I seed 'em, an' I figgered that they weren't gonna lay down an' lose their fat mark without a fight!"
"And very wise you were to remind us of that," Sahib said gravely. "I pointed out to Mem'sab that we have no way of knowing where this medium is from, and she is just as likely to be a criminal as a ladymore so, in fact. Just because she speaks, acts, and dresses like a lady, and seeks her clients from among the gentry, means nothing; she could easily have a crew of thugs as her accomplices."
"As you say, Sahib," Karamjit said gravely. "For, as it is said, it is a short step from a deception to a lie, from a lie to a cheat, from a cheat to a theft, and from a theft to a murder."
Mem'sab blushed. "I will admit that I was very angry with you at first, but when my anger cooled, it was clear that your reasoning was sound. And after all, am I some Gothic heroine to go wide-eyed into the villains' lair, never suspecting trouble? So, we are here to plan what we all shall do to free Katherine of her dangerous obsession."
"Me, I needta know what this see-ants is gonna be like, Mem'sab," Nan put in, sitting on the edge of the chair tensely. "What sorta things happens?"
"Generally, the participants are brought into a room that has a round table with chairs circling it." Mem'sab spoke directly to Nan as if to an adult, which gave Nan a rather pleasant, if shivery, feeling. "The table often has objects upon it that the spirits will supposedly move; often a bell, a tambourine and a megaphone are among them, though why spirits would feel the need to play upon a tambourine when they never had that urge in life is quite beyond me!"
She laughed, as did Sahib; the girls giggled nervously.
"At any rate, the participants are asked to sit down and hold hands. Often the medium is tied to the chair; her hands are secured to the arms, and her feet to the legs." Nan noticed that Mem'sab used the word "legs" rather than the mannerly "limbs," and thought the better of her for that. "The lights are brought down, and the seance begins. Most often objects are moved, including the table, the tambourine is played, the bell is rung, all as a sign that the spirits have arrived. The spirits most often speak by means of raps on the table, but Katherine tells me that the spirit of her little boy spoke directly, through the floating megaphone. Sometimes a spirit will actually appear; in this case, it was just a glowing face of Katherine's son."
Nan thought that over for a moment. "Be simple 'nuff t' tilt the chair an' get yer legs free by slippin the rope down over the chair-feet," she observed, "An' all ye hev t' do is have chair-arms as isn't glued t' their pegs, an' ye got yer arms free too. Be easy enough to make all kind uv things dance about when ye got arms free. Be easy 'nuff t' make th' table lift if's light enough, an' rap on it, too."
Sahib stared at her in astonishment. "I do believe that you are the most valuable addition to our household in a long time, young lady!" he said with delight that made Nan blush. "I would never have thought of any of that."
"I dunno how ye'd make summat glow, though," Nan admitted.
"Oh, I know that," Sarah said casually. "There's stuff that grows in rotten wood that makes a glow; some of the magic-men use it to frighten people at night. It grows in swamps, so it probably grows in England, too."
Karamjit grinned, his teeth very white in his dark face, and Selim nodded with pride. "What is it that the Black Robe's Book says, Sahib? Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom?"
Mem'sab nodded. "I should have told you more, earlier," she said ruefully. "Well, that's mended in time. Now we all know what to look for."
Grey clicked her beak several times, then exclaimed, "Ouch!"
"Grey is going to try to bite whatever comes near her," Sarah explained.
"I don't want her venturing off your arm," Mem'sab cautioned. "I won't chance her getting hurt." She turned to Sahib. "The chances are, the room we will be in will have very heavy curtains to prevent light from entering or escaping, so if you and our warriors are outside, you won't know what room we are in."
"Then I'd like one of you girls to exercise childish curiosity and go immediately to a window and look out," Sahib told them. "At least one of us will be where we can see both the front and the back of the house. Then if there is trouble, one of you signal us and we'll come to the rescue."
"Just like the shining knights you are, all three of you," Mem'sab said warmly, laying her hand over the one Sahib had on the desk. "I think that is as much of a plan as we can lay, since we really don't know what we will find in that house."
"It's enough, I suspect," Sahib replied. "It allows two of us to break into the house if necessary, while one goes for the police." He stroked his chin thoughtfully with his free hand. "Or better yet, I'll take a whistle; that will summon help in no time." He glanced up at Mem'sab. "What time did you say the invitation specified?"
"Seven," she replied promptly. "Well after dark, although Katherine tells me that her sessions are usually later, nearer midnight."
"The medium may anticipate some trouble from sleepy children," Sahib speculated. "But that's just a guess." He stood up, still holding his wife's hand, and she slid off her perch on the desk and turned to face them. "Ladies, gentlemen, I think we are as prepared as we can be for trouble. So let us get a good night's sleep, and hope that we will not find any."
Then Sahib did a surprising thing; he came around his desk, limping stiffly, and bent over Nan and took her hand. "Perhaps only I of all of us can realize how brave you were to confide your worry to an adult you have only just come to trust, Nan," he said, very softly, then grinned at her so impishly that she saw the little boy he must have been in the eyes of the mature man. "Ain't no doubt 'uv thet, missy. Yer a cunnin' moit, an' 'ad more blows then pats, Oi reckon," he continued in street cant, shocking the breath out of her. "I came up the same way you are now, dear, thanks to a very kind man with no son of his own. I want you to remember that to us here at this school, there is no such thing as a stupid question, nor will we dismiss any worry you have as trivial. Never fear to bring either to an adult."
He straightened up, as Mem'sab came to his side, nodding. "Now both of you try and get some sleep, for every warrior knows that sleep is more important than anything else before a battle."
Ha, Nan thought, as she and Sarah followed Karamjit out of the study. There's gonna be trouble; I kin feel it, an' so can he. He didn' get that tiger by not havin' a nose fer trouble. ButI reckon the trouble's gonna have its hands full with him.
The medium lived in a modest house just off one of the squares in the part of London that housed those clerks and the like with pretensions to a loftier address than their purses would allow, an area totally unfamiliar to Nan. The house itself had seen better days, though, as had most of the other homes on that dead-end street, and Nan suspected that it was rented. The houses had that peculiarly faded look that came when the owners of a house did not actually live there, and those who did had no reason to care for the property themselves, assuming that was the duty of the landlord.
Mem'sab had chosen her gown carefully, after discarding a walking-suit, a mourning-gown and veil, and a peculiar draped garment she called a sari, a souvenir of her time in India. The first, she thought, made her look untrusting, sharp, and suspicious, the second would not be believed had the medium done any research on the backgrounds of these new sitters, and the third smacked of mockery. She chose instead one of the plain, simple gowns she preferred, in the mode called "Artistic Reform"; not particularly stylish, but Nan thought it was a good choice. For one thing, she could move in it; it was looser than the highest mode, and did not require tight corseting. If Mem'sab needed to run, kick, or dodge, she could.
The girls followed her quietly, dressed in their starched pinafores and dark dresses, showing the best possible manners, with Grey tucked under Sarah's coat to stay warm until they got within doors.
It was quite dark as they mounted the steps to the house and rang the bell. It was answered by a sour-faced woman in a plain black dress, who ushered them into a sitting room and took their coats, with a startled glance at Grey as he popped her head out of the front of Sarah's jacket. She said nothing, however, and neither did Grey as she climbed to Sarah's shoulder.
The woman returned a moment later, but not before Nan had heard the faint sounds of surreptitious steps on the floor above them. She knew it had not been the sour woman, for she had clearly heard those steps going off to a closet and returning. If the seance-room was on this floor, then, there was someone else above.
The sitting-room had been decorated in a very odd style. The paintings on the wall were all either religious in nature, or extremely morbid, at least so far as Nan was concerned. There were pictures of women weeping over graves, of angels lifting away the soul of a dead child, of a woman throwing herself to her death over a cliff, of the spirits of three children hovering about a man and woman mourning over pictures held in their listless hands. There was even a picture of a girl crying over a dead bird lying in her hand.
Crystal globes on stands decorated the tables, along with bouquets of funereal lilies whose heavy, sweet scent dominated the chill room. The tables were all draped in fringed cloths of a deep scarlet. The hard, severe furniture was either of wood or upholstered in prickly horsehair. The two lamps had been lit before they entered the room, but their light, hampered as it was by heavy brocade lamp shades, cast more shadows than illumination.
They didn't have to wait long in that uncomfortable room, for the sour servant departed for a moment, then returned, and conducted them into the next room.
This, evidently, was only an antechamber to the room of mysteries; heavy draperies swathed all the walls, and there were straight-backed chairs set against them on all four walls. The lily-scent pervaded this room as well, mixed with another, that Nan recognized as the Hindu incense that Nadra often burned in her own devotions.
There was a single picture in this room, on the wall opposite the door, with a candle placed on a small table beneath it so as to illuminate it properly. This was a portrait in oils of a plump woman swathed in pale draperies, her hands clasped melodramatically before her breast, her eyes cast upwards. Smoke, presumably that of incense, swirled around her, with the suggestion of faces in it. Nan was no judge of art, but Mem'sab walked up to it and examined it with a critical eye.
"Neither good nor bad," she said, measuringly. "I would say it is either the work of an unknown professional or a talented amateur."
"A talented amateur," said the lady that Mem'sab had called "Katherine," as she too was ushered into the chamber. "My dear friend Lady Harrington painted it; it was she who introduced me to Madame Varonsky." Mem'sab turned to meet her, and Katherine glided across the floor to take her hand in greeting. "It is said to be a very speaking likeness," she continued. "I certainly find it so."
Nan studied the woman further, but saw nothing to change her original estimation. Katherine wore yet another mourning gown of expensive silk and mohair, embellished with jet beadwork and fringes that shivered with the slightest movement. A black hat with a full veil perched on her carefully coiffed curls, fair hair too dark to be called golden, but not precisely brown either. Her full lips trembled, even as they uttered words of polite conversation, her eyes threatened to fill at every moment, and Nan thought that her weak chin reflected an overly sentimental and vapid personality. It was an assessment that was confirmed by her conversation with Mem'sab, conversation that Nan ignored in favor of listening for other sounds. Over their heads, the floor creaked softly as someone moved to and fro, trying very hard to be quiet. There were also some odd scratching sounds that didn't sound like mice, and once, a dull thud, as of something heavy being set down a little too hard.
Something was going on up there, and the person doing it didn't want them to notice.
At length the incense-smell grew stronger, and the drapery on the wall to the right of the portrait parted, revealing a door, which opened as if by itself.
Taking that as their invitation, Katherine broke off her small talk to hurry eagerly into the sacred precincts; Mem'sab gestured to the girls to precede her, and followed on their heels. By previous arrangement, Nan and Sarah, rather than moving towards the circular table at which Madame Varonsky waited, went to the two walls likeliest to hold windows behind their heavy draperies before anyone could stop them.
It was Nan's luck to find a corner window overlooking the street, and she made sure that some light from the room within flashed to the watcher on the opposite side before she dropped the drapery.
"Come away from the windows, children," Mem'sab said in a voice that gently chided. Nan and Sarah immediately turned back to the room, and Nan assessed the foe.
Madame Varonsky's portraitist had flattered her; she was decidedly paler than she had been painted, with a complexion unpleasantly like wax. She wore similar draperies, garments which could have concealed anything. The smile on her thin lips did not reach her eyes, and she regarded the parrot on Sarah's shoulder with distinct unease.
"You did not warn me about the bird, Katherine," the woman said, her voice rather reedy.
"The bird will be no trouble, Madame Varonsky," Mem'sab soothed. "It is better behaved than a good many of my pupils."
"Your pupilsI am not altogether clear on why they were brought," Madame Varonsky replied, turning her sharp black eyes on Nan and Sarah.
"Nan is an orphan, and wants to learn what she can of her parents, since she never knew them," Mem'sab said smoothly. "And Sarah lost a little brother to an African fever."
"Ah." Madame Varonsky's suspicions diminished, and she gestured to the chairs around the table. "Please, all of you, do take your seats, and we can begin at once."
As with the antechamber, this room had walls swathed in draperies, which Nan decided could conceal an entire army if Madame Varonsky were so inclined. The only furnishings besides the seance table and chairs were a sinuous statue of a female completely enveloped in draperies on a draped table, with incense burning before it in a small charcoal brazier of brass and cast iron.
The table at which Nan took her place was very much as Mem'sab had described. A surreptitious bump as Nan took her seat on Mem'sab's left hand proved that it was quite light and easy to move; it would be possible to lift it with one hand with no difficulty at all. On the draped surface were some of the objects Mem'sab had described; a tambourine, a megaphone, a little hand-bell. There were three lit candles in a brass candlestick in the middle of the table, and some objects Nan had not expecteda fiddle and bow, a rattle, and a pair of handkerchiefs.
This is where we're supposed to look, Nan realized, as Sarah took her place on Mem'sab's right, next to Madame Varonsky, and Katherine on Nan's left, flanking the medium on the other side. She wished she could look up, as Grey was unashamedly doing, her head over to one side as one eye peered upwards at the ceiling above them.
"If you would follow dear Katherine's example, child," said Madame, as Katherine took one of the handkerchiefs and used it to tie the medium's wrist to the arm of her chair. She smiled crookedly. "This is to assure you that I am not employing any trickery." Sarah, behaving with absolute docility, did the same on the other side, but cast Nan a knowing look as she finished. Nan knew what that meant; Sarah had tried the arm of the chair and found it loose.
"Now, if you all will hold hands, we will beseech the spirits to attend on us." The medium turned her attention to Mem'sab as Katherine and Sarah stretched their arms across the table to touch hands, and the rest reached for the hands of their partners. "Pray do not be alarmed when the candles are extinguished; the spirits are shy of light, for they are so delicate that it can destroy them. They will put out the candles themselves."
For several long moments they sat in complete silence, as the incense smoke thickened and curled around. Then although there wasn't a single breath of moving air in the room, the candle-flames began to dim, one by one, and go out!
Nan felt the hair on the back of her neck rising, for this was a phenomena she could not account forto distract herself, she looked up quickly at the ceiling just in time to see a faint line of light in the form of a square vanish.
She felt better immediately. However the medium had extinguished the candles, it had to be a trick. If she had any real powers, she wouldn't need a trapdoor in the ceiling of her seance-room. As she looked back down, she realized that the objects on the table were all glowing with a dim, greenish light.
"Spirits, are you with us?" Madame Varonsky called. Nan immediately felt the table begin to lift.
Katherine gasped; Mem'sab gave Nan's hand a squeeze; understanding immediately what she wanted, Nan let go of it. Now Mem'sab was free to act as she needed.
"The spirits are strong tonight," Madame murmured, as the table settled again. "Perhaps they will give us a further demonstration of their powers."
Exactly on cue, the tambourine rose into the air, shaking uncertainly; first the megaphone joined it, then the rattle, then the hand-bell, all floating in mid-air, or seeming to. But Nan was looking up, not at the objects, and saw a very dim square, too dim to be called light, above the table. A deeper shadow moved back and forth over that area, and Nan's lip curled with contempt. She had no difficulty in imagining how the objects were "levitating"; one by one, they'd been pulled up by wires or black strings, probably hooked by means of a fishing-rod from the room above.
Now rapping began on the table, to further distract their attention. Madame began to ask questions.
"Is there a spirit here for Helen Harton?" she asked. One rapthat was a no; not surprising, since the medium probably wouldn't want to chance making a mistake with an adult. "Is there a spirit here for Katherine Boughmont?" Two rapsyes. "Is this the spirit of a child?" Two raps, and already Katherine had begun to weep softly. "Is it the spirit of her son, Edward?" Two raps plus the bell rang and the rattle and tambourine played, and Nan found herself feeling very sorry for the poor, silly woman.
"Are there other spirits here tonight?" Two raps. "Is there a spirit for the child Nan?" Two raps. "Is it her father?" One rap. "Her mother?" Two raps, and Nan had to control her temper, which flared at that moment. She knew very well that her mother was still alive, though at the rate she was going, she probably wouldn't be for long, what with the gin and the opium and the rest of her miserable life. But if she had been a young orphan, her parents dead in some foreign land like one or two of the other pupils, what would she not have given for the barest word from them, however illusory? Would she not have been willing to believe anything that sounded warm and kind?
There appeared to be no spirit for Sarah, which was just as well. Madame Varonsky was ready to pull out the next of her tricks, for the floating objects settled to the table again.
"My spirit-guide was known in life as the great Paganini, the master violinist," Madame Varonsky announced. "As music is the food of the soul, he will employ the same sweet music he made in life to bridge the gap between our world and the next. Listen, and he will play this instrument before us!"
Fiddle music appeared to come from the instrument on the table, although the bow did not actually move across the strings. Katherine gasped.
"Release the child's hand a moment and touch the violin, dear Katherine," the medium said, in a kind, but distant voice. Katherine evidently let go of Sarah's hand, since she still had hold of Nan's, and the shadow of her fingers rested for a moment on the neck of the fiddle.
"The strings!" she cried. "Helen, the strings are vibrating as they are played!"
If this was supposed to be some great, long-dead music-master, Nan didn't think much of his ability. If she wasn't mistaken, the tune he was playing was the child's chant of "London Bridge Is Falling Down," but played very, very slowly, turning it into a solemn dirge.
"Touch the strings, Helen!" Katherine urged. "See for yourself!"
Nan felt Mem'sab lean forward, and another hand-shadow fell over the strings. "They are vibrating. . . ." she said, her voice suddenly uncertain.
The music ground to a halt before she took her hand awayand until this moment, Grey had been as silent as a stuffed bird on a lady's hat. Now she did something.
She began to sing. It was a very clever imitation of a fiddle, playing a jig-tune that a street-musician often played at the gate of the School, for the pennies the pupils would throw to him.
She quit almost immediately, but not before Mem'sab took her hand away from the strings, and Nan sensed that somehow Grey had given her the clue she needed to solve that particular trick.
But the medium must have thought that her special spirit was responsible for that scrap of jig-tune, for she didn't say or do anything.
Nan sensed that all of this was building to the main turn, and so it was.
Remembering belatedly that she should be keeping an eye on that suspicious square above. She glanced up just in time to see it disappear. As the medium began to moan and sigh, calling on Paganini, Nan kept her eye on the ceiling. Sure enough, the dim line of light appeared again, forming a greyish square. Then the lines of the square thickened, and Nan guessed that a square platform was being lowered from above.
Pungent incense smoke thickened about them, filling Nan's nose and stinging her eyes so that they watered, and she smothered a sneeze. It was hard to breathe, and there was something strangely, disquietingly familiar about the scent.
The medium's words, spoken in a harsh, accented voice, cut through the smoke. "I, the great Paganini, am here among you!"
Once again, Katherine gasped.
"Harken and be still! Lo, the spirits gather!"
Nan's eyes burned, and for a moment, she felt very dizzy; she thought that the soft glow in front of her was due to nothing more than eyestrain, but the glow strengthened, and she blinked in shock as two vague shapes took form amid the writhing smoke.
For a new brazier, belching forth such thick smoke that the coals were invisible, had "appeared" in the center of the table, just behind the candlestick. It was above this brazier that the glowing shapes hovered, and slowly took on an identifiable form. Nan felt dizzier, sick; the room seemed to turn slowly around her.
The faces of a young woman and a little boy looked vaguely out over Nan's head from the cloud of smoke. Katherine began to weeppresumably she thought she recognized the child as her own. But the fact that the young woman looked nothing like Nan's mother (and in fact, looked quite a bit like the sketch in an advertisement for Bovril in the Times) woke Nan out of her mental haze.
And so did Grey.
She heard the flapping of wings as Grey plummeted to the floor. She sneezed urgently, and shouted aloud, "Bad air! Bad air!"
And that was the moment when she knew what it was that was so familiar in the incense smoke, and why she felt as tipsy as a sailor on shore leave.
"Hashish!" she choked, trying to shout, and not managing very well. She knew this scent; on the rare occasions when her mother could afford itand before she'd turned to opiumshe'd smoked it in preference to drinking. Nan could only think of one thing; that she must get fresh air in here before they all passed out!
She shoved her chair back and staggered up and out of it; it fell behind her with a clatter that seemed muffled in the smoke. She groped for the brazier as the two faces continued to stare, unmoved and unmoving, from the thick billows. Her hands felt like a pair of lead-filled mittens; she had to fight to stay upright as she swayed like a drunk. She didn't find it, but her hands closed on the cool, smooth surface of the crystal ball.
That was good enough; before the medium could stop her, she heaved up the heavy ball with a grunt of effort, and staggered to the window. She half-spun and flung the ball at the draperies hiding the unseen window; it hit the drapes and carried them into the glass, crashing through it, taking the drapery with it.
A gush of cold air, as fresh as air in London ever got, streamed in through the broken panes, as bedlam erupted in the room behind Nan.
She dropped to the floor, ignoring everything around her for the moment, as she breathed in the air tainted only with smog, waiting for her head to clear. Grey ran to her and huddled with her rather than joining her beloved mistress in the poisonous smoke.
Katherine shrieked in hysteria, there was a man as well as the medium shouting, and Mem'sab cursed all of them in some strange language. Grey gave a terrible shriek and half-ran, half flew away. Nan fought her dizziness and disorientation; looked up to see that Mem'sab was struggling in the grip of a stringy fellow she didn't recognize. Katherine had been backed up into one corner by the medium, and Sarah and Grey were pummeling the medium with small fists and wings. Mem'sab kicked at her captor's shins and stamped on his feet with great effect, as his grunts of pain demonstrated.
Nan struggled to her feet, guessing that she must have been the one worst affected by the hashish fumes. She wanted to run to Mem'sab's rescue, but she couldn't get her legs to work. In a moment the sour-faced woman would surely break into the room, turning the balance in favor of the enemy
The door did crash open behind her just as she thought that, and she tried to turn to face the new foe
But it was not the foe.
Sahib charged through the broken door, pushing past Nan to belabor the man holding Mem'sab with his cane; within three blows the man was on the floor, moaning. Before Nan fell, Karamjit caught her and steadied her. More men flooded into the room, and Nan let Karamjit steer her out of the way, concentrating on those steadying breaths of air. She thought perhaps that she passed out of consciousness for a while, for when she next noticed anything, she was sitting bent over in a chair, with Karamjit hovering over her, frowning. At some point the brazier had been extinguished, and a policeman was collecting the ashes and the remains of the drug-laced incense.
Finally her head cleared; by then, the struggle was over. The medium and her fellow tricksters were in the custody of the police, who had come with Sahib when Nan threw the crystal ball through the window. Sahib was talking to a policeman with a sergeant's badge, and Nan guessed that he was explaining what Mem'sab and Katherine were doing here. Katherine wept in a corner, comforted by Mem'sab. The police had brought lamps into the seance-room from the sitting-room, showing all too clearly how the medium had achieved her work; a hatch in the ceiling to the room above, through which things could be lowered; a magic-lantern behind the drapes, which had cast its image of a woman and boy onto the thick brazier smoke. That, and the disorienting effect of the hashish had made it easy to trick the clients.
Finally the bobbies took their captives away, and Katherine stopped crying. Nan and Sarah sat on the chairs Karamjit had set up, watching the adults, Grey on her usual perch on Sarah's shoulder. A cushion stuffed in the broken window cut off most of the cold air from outside.
"I can't believe I was so foolish!" Katherine moaned. "ButI wanted to see Edward so very much"
"I hardly think that falling for a clever deception backed by drugs makes you foolish, ma'am," Sahib said gravely. "But you are to count yourself fortunate in the loyalty of your friends, who were willing to place themselves in danger for you. I do not think that these people would have been willing to stop at mere fraud, and neither do the police."
His last words made no impression on Katherine, at least none that Nan sawbut she did turn to Mem'sab and clasp her hand fervently. "I thought so ill of you, that you would not believe in Madame," she said tearfully. "Can you forgive me?"
Mem'sab smiled. "Always, my dear," she said, in the voice she used to soothe a frightened child. "Since your motive was to enlighten me, not to harm meand your motive in seeking your poor child's spirit"
A chill passed over Nan at that moment that had nothing to do with the outside air. She looked sharply at Sarah, and saw a very curious thing.
There was a very vague and shimmery shape standing in front of Sarah's chair; Sarah looked at it with an intense and thoughtful gaze, as if she was listening to it. More than that, Grey was doing the same. Nan got the distinct impression that it was asking her friend for a favor.
Grey and Sarah exchanged a glance, and the parrot nodded once, as grave and sober as a parson, then spread her wings as if sheltering Sarah like a chick.
The shimmering form melted into Sarah; her features took on a mischievous expression that Nan had never seen her wear before, and she got up and went directly to Katherine.
The woman looked up at her, startled at the intrusion of a child into an adult discussion, then paled at something she saw in Sarah's face.
"Oh, Mummy, you don't have to be so sad," Sarah said in a curiously hollow, piping soprano. "I'm all right, really, and it wasn't your fault anyway, it was that horrid Lord Babbington that made you and Papa send me to Overton. But you must stop crying, please! Laurie is already scared of being left, and you're scaring her more."
Now, Nan knew very well that Mem'sab had not said anything about a Lord Babbington, nor did she and Sarah know what school the poor little boy had been sent to. Yet, she wasn't frightened; in fact, the protective but calm look in Grey's eye made her feel rather good, as if something inside her told her that everything was going wonderfully well.
The effect on Katherine was not what Nan had expected, either.
She reached out tentatively, as if to touch Sarah's face, but stopped short. "This is you, isn't it, darling?" she asked in a whisper.
Sarah noddedor was it Edward who nodded? "Now, I've got to go, Mummy, and I can't come back. So don't look for me, and don't cry anymore."
The shimmering withdrew, forming into a brilliant ball of light at about Sarah's heart, then shot off, so fast that Nan couldn't follow it. Grey pulled in her wings, and Sarah shook her head a little, then regarded Katherine with a particularly measuring expression before coming back to her chair and sitting down.
"Out of the mouths of babes, Katherine," Mem'sab said quietly, then looked up at Karamjit. "I think you and Selim should take the girls home now; they've had more than enough excitement for one night."
Karamjit bowed silently, and Grey added her own vote. "Wan' go back," she said in a decidedly firm tone. When Selim brought their coats and helped them to put them on, Grey climbed right back inside Sarah's, and didn't even put her head back out again.
They didn't have to go home in a cab, either; Katherine sent them back to the school in her own carriage, which was quite a treat for Nan, who'd had no notion that a private carriage would come equipped with such comforts as heated bricks for the feet and fur robes to bundle in. Nan didn't say anything to Sarah about the aftermath of the seance until they were alone together in their shared dormitory room.
Only then, as Grey took her accustomed perch on the headboard of Sarah's bed, did Nan look at her friend and ask
"That lastwas that?"
Sarah nodded. "I could see him, clear as clear, too." She smiled a little. "He must've been a horrid brat at times, but he really wasn't bad, just spoiled enough to be a bit selfish, and he's beenlearning better manners, since."
All that Nan could think of to say was"Ah."
"Still; I think it was a bit rude of him to have been so impatient with his Mother," she continued, a little irritated.
"I 'spose that magic-man friend of yours is right," Nan replied, finally. "About what you c'n do, I mean."
"Oh! You're right!" Sarah exclaimed. "But you know, I don't think I could have done it if Grey hadn't been there. I thought if I ever saw a spirit I'd be too scared to do anything, but I wasn't afraid, since she wasn't."
The parrot took a little piece of Sarah's hair in her beak and preened it.
"Wise bird," replied Grey.