Blackwood farm, p.35

Blackwood Farm, page 35

 part  #9 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


Blackwood Farm

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  "WHO CAN SAY how different my last few days in New Orleans might have been had I known that we would be gone on our European odyssey for a full three years?

  "No one among our party knew that the festivities would go on so long, and indeed it was the spirit of living moment to moment which kept us going -- forever checking Aunt Queen's blood pressure and general stamina with her favorite physicians of Paris, Rome, Zurich and London -- as we roved ever back and forth through the castles, museums, cathedrals and cities that Aunt Queen showed me with such love and enthusiasm, and with Nash's wise instruction from which I drew constant overwhelming stimulation; always yielding to Aunt Queen's desire to travel 'a few more months,' to yet another 'little country' or another great and grand 'ruin' that I should 'never forget. ¡¯

  "Aunt Queen's health was failing, there was no doubt of it, or, to put it more truly, she was simply getting too old to do what she was doing, and that is what she would scarcely face.

  "Cindy, our delightful nurse, was sent for and came to travel with us, which put everyone's mind at ease somewhat, as Cindy could take vital signs and administer appropriate pills at appropriate hours, and also she was of that congenial brand of nurse who does not mind assisting with all sorts of personal tasks, and so became Aunt Queen's secretary as well.

  "Nash also fulfilled this function to a large extent for both of us, delivering our faxes to the concierges of the various splendid hotels in which we stayed, and taking care of all bills and gratuities so that we had never to worry with such things. Nash, also being something of a whizbang on his laptop computer, wrote out Aunt Queen's letters to her friends.

  "As to his commentary on all that we saw and visited, Nash took this very seriously, never failing to do his homework so that his observations were fresh and he could answer whatever questions we might have.

  "He was a marvelous physical assistant to Aunt Queen, helping her in and out of limousines and up and down stairways, and was not above loosening and tightening the straps of her murderous shoes.

  "But the point is, the more we traveled the more we enjoyed ourselves, the more Tommy and I visibly and joyfully marveled at everything -- the little children of the group -- the more I couldn't bear the thought of saying to Aunt Queen, 'Yes, you must terminate this, your last trip to all the wonderful places you have always loved. Yes, you will never see Paris or London or Rome again. ¡¯

  "No, I could not bear it, no matter how much I loved Mona, no matter how much my heart yearned for her and no matter how much I feared that all her E-mails and faxes and letters to me asserting her 'stable condition' were not telling the truth.

  "So for more than three years we meandered gloriously, and I will not try to recount our adventures, except for certain very specific things.

  "Allow me to say for the record, if nothing more, that Tommy proved himself to be a genius, just as I had first believed him to be, in the precocity with which he absorbed all the beauty and knowledge around him; and, with no resistance to any adult authority, he gave back his written essays both to me and Nash with verve and appropriate pride.

  "The fact that he so much physically resembled me obviously fed my vanity, I'm sure of it, but I would have loved him had he looked wholly different. What I found so purely virtuous in him was that he was curious. He had none of the sullen arrogance of ignorance and was forever asking questions of Nash, and purchasing cultural souvenirs of all sorts for his mother, brothers and sisters, which we sent off from every hotel by overnight express.

  "Meantime, Grady Breen sent frequent packets of photographs of Terry Sue, her brood, her nanny, her maid, her yard man and the house, affirming that we had indeed preempted her doom.

  "I knew, of course, without ever telling Tommy, that I would never surrender him to Terry Sue again, unless he himself madly insisted upon it, a condition I could hardly imagine and of which I got no inkling at all. On the contrary, by the second year he did not correct me or even go silent when I said, 'When you come to live with us at Blackwood Manor,' and that was good enough for me.

  "Of course Aunt Queen made a total pet of him, buying him clothes he outgrew almost instantly, and nothing pleased her so much as to see people in the hotel lobbies or in the restaurants turning to look at him, the little gentleman in his black suit and tie, as we came in.

  "As for me, I was so overwhelmed and so often in our travels that it would make tiresome reading here to recount it. It is enough to say that I drew intense enjoyment from everything I saw whether it was a tiny hamlet in England or the splendor of the Amalfi Coast.

  "There is but one aspect of our Grand Tour that I want to recount, and that has to do with the ruins of Pompeii, outside of Naples.

  "But let me first dispense with certain other matters, including the mystery of Goblin, because, as Goblin predicted, I lost him at some point on the first evening as we crossed the sea.

  "I'm not even sure of how it happened or when. I sat beside him in the luxurious cabin of a newly designed model 800 jumbo jet , in which each seat swiveled and had its own private television set, and where a level of unparalleled privacy enabled me to talk to him and hold fast to his hand. And this I did, assuring him, against his fears, that I would do everything I could to keep him with me, and that I loved him. . .

  " . . . And then, quite slowly, he began to fade. I heard his voice grow faint and then become telepathic, and then it was gone altogether, but in those last moments I said, 'Goblin, wait for me. Goblin, I will return home. Goblin, guard the house for me against the mysterious stranger. I need you to do it. Make sure my beloved Jasmine and Big Ramona and Clem and Allen are all safe. ¡¯

  "It was a song I had been singing to him ever since we took off, but now I put the case to him urgently, and then I saw him no more.

  "The feeling of severance, the feeling of pure lonesome emptiness around me was shocking and awful, and it was as if someone had taken all my clothes from me and left me in a desert place. For a full hour, perhaps more, I said nothing to anyone. I lay back, hoping this feeling of misery would leave me, trying desperately to realize I was free of him, I mustn't complain of it, I was free to go on with the tasks of Manhood, to be Tommy's devoted nephew, to make Aunt Queen happy, to learn from Nash. All the world was quite literally waiting for me!

  "But I was without Goblin. Utterly without. And I felt a quality of agony that I had never known.

  "Strange that in this lengthening aftermath, as I lay back in the luxurious seat being served another glass of wine by the sweet stewardess, as the plane seemed enveloped in the silence of the engines, and I couldn't even hear the voices of Tommy and Aunt Queen, no, couldn't even see them, or Nash with his book -- it was during this sudden long and cold interval that I realized I hadn't said farewell to Patsy.

  "I hadn't even tried to find Patsy. None of us, to my knowledge, had tried to find Patsy. We hadn't even thought of her. Not even Clem had asked what he should do should she want the limousine. Nor had Big Ramona said, What do we do if she brings her singers and her drummers into the house?

  "No one had given her a thought either negative or positive, and now I lamented it, that I hadn't tried to call her and say good-bye. A coldness stole over me. Did I miss her? No, I missed Goblin. I felt as if my skin had been peeled and the cold winds had me.

  "Patsy, my Patsy. Would she have the sense to get the medical care she needed? I felt too weary suddenly to tackle the problem, and certainly too alienated and too far away.

  "And then a fear gripped me, not just a fear but a certainty.

  "And realizing that I couldn't possibly be reached by phone on this plane but that I could phone Blackwood Manor, I broke out my new credit card and phoned home.

  "I could hear the glass breaking in the background before I heard Jasmine's voice.

  " 'Thank God it's you,' she declared. 'Do you know what he's doing? He's breaking every pane of glass in this place. He's on a rampage

  " 'Tell me exactly,' I said. 'Can you see him?¡¯

  " 'No, I can't see him. It's just the panes shattering. He went through the living room first. It was like a fist breaking them, one after another. ¡¯

  " 'Listen to me. He's not as strong as you think he is. Whatever you do, don't look at the place where he's breaking the glass. You don't want to see him. That gives him power, and he's going to run out of power altogether, working the way he does. ¡¯

  "I could hardly understand her as she continued. He had apparently broken all the glass in the dining room. Right this very minute he was in the kitchen, where Jasmine was, but he had just stopped there, and she could hear the glass breaking on the second floor and the guests were running down the stairs.

  " 'He stopped in the kitchen?¡¯

  "She confirmed it.

  " 'He didn't want to hurt you, then. You run get the guests out of the house. Let them go without a bill. Hurry. But don't go up to where he is, except to get the guests. And whatever you do, don't try to see him. That will only give him strength. ¡¯

  "I hung on. It was hard to hear over the roar of the plane, yet the sound came to me over thousands of miles, the tinkling of that shattered glass as he worked his lonely fury. And I thought frantically, What do I do before I call Stirling. What do I do now at this minute as man of the house?

  "After an eternity, Jasmine was back on the line. 'He's stopped,' she said. 'The guests have all gone. Boy, were they ever excited. They got their money's worth and didn't have to pay it! I'm telling you there'll be tales told in Ruby River City and Mapleville tonight. ¡¯

  " 'Are you hurt? Is anybody hurt?¡¯

  " 'No, it just all fell to the floor,' she answered. 'Quinn, we've got to close this place down. ¡¯

  " 'Like hell, Jasmine,' I said. 'You don't think he's got the stamina to keep this up, do you?' I asked her. 'He doesn't. Not without me to see him, don't you get it? He's run out. He took back what he could. ¡¯

  " 'And who's to say he won't climb out of bed with a new bag of tricks tomorrow,' she asked. 'I wish you could see this place!¡¯

  "I held on while she had a big argument with Clem and Allen. One wanted all the glass replaced immediately, the other said Goblin would just break it. Then Big Ramona said it had to be fixed, as a thunderstorm was coming.

  " 'Look, I'm the boss,' I chimed in from the plane. 'Fix the glass now. Tell them to get the best quality that the windows will hold. God knows we had some very weak glass in some of those windows. ' (She told them what I said. ) 'Now, Jasmine, I want you to put the phone on hold and go up to my room and pick it up at my computer desk. ¡¯

  "It took her longer than I liked. I told her to switch on the computer.

  " 'It's already on,' she told me. 'And I know you turned it off when you left. ¡¯

  " 'What's on the screen?¡¯

  " ' "QUINN, COME HOME" in big letters,' she told me.

  " 'All right, I want you to type in this response: "Goblin, I love you. But I can't leave Aunt Queen now. You know how I love Aunt Queen. " ' I heard the keys clicking. Then I spoke some more. ' " Please protect those I love from Petronia. " ' (I had to spell that for Jasmine. ) ' " Goblin, wait for me. Love me. Love, Quinn. " ¡¯

  "I waited a moment as I listened to her type. I thought of something, something that just might work. Now, years later, I wonder if wasn't a disastrous thought. But all my love of Goblin seems now to have been full of disastrous thoughts.

  " 'Jasmine, I want you to type another message,' I said. ' " Dear Goblin, I can write to you through the computer. I can send you E-mail. I will send it regularly to you care of my computer name, King Tarquin. I'll be using a new name to send. And you can send it to me as soon as I send that new name. You know the computer as well as I do, Goblin. Wait for my communication. " ¡¯

  "It took a good while for Jasmine to get this message straightened out, but it was typed in and then I instructed her from then on to leave the computer on. She was to put a note on it instructing everybody to keep hands off.

  " 'Now we'll see if Goblin isn't happy,' I told her. 'And very soon you'll be able to reach us at the Hotel Hassler in Rome. ¡¯

  "I rang off. As Lord of Blackwood Manor I saw no reason to tell the others that almost every window of the house had been broken. I lay back thinking that my new E-mail name should be Noble Abelard, and I should insist Mona use the name Ophelia Immortal, and perhaps Goblin should be Goblin.

  "And so these things did come to pass.

  "By the time we left the Eternal City, I and Mona and Goblin had established these links for computer correspondence, and it happened that all of my travels fed into my loving letters to my treasure, Ophelia Immortal, and only slightly edited versions of these same epistles went to my beloved Goblin, whilst from Mona I received passionate and highly humorous letters and from Goblin weaker and weaker transmissions largely only confessing his need of me and his love.

  "Whenever we hit a hotel which had good computer equipment I printed out all this material, and it became my journal of the journey, and I was self-conscious enough not to write all of my erotic blandishments to Mona, and it was rather fun to try to speak in fractured Shakespearean tones.

  "As for Goblin, his slow demise worried me intensely and ate at my soul as if a dark hand were scratching at my very heart, but I didn't know what to do about it other than what I had done.

  "Meantime, there were no more disturbances at Blackwood Manor.

  "But the legend of the breaking glass was now known throughout Ruby River Parish, and guests were calling for bookings day and night. My impression over the phone was that Jasmine was having a wonderful time, despite her protests of anxiety, and we again raised her salary and that of everybody on the staff.

  "Jasmine, of her own volition, began to accept new bookings, and, as it turned out, the place was filled for the whole time that we were gone. Soon Big Ramona was cut in for a percentage of the profits, and I believe, though I'm not sure, that Clem was too. That took care of Jasmine's family. I drew the line when it came to Allen and the Shed Men, as they were making twice the wages of anybody similar in Ruby River Parish, with free drinks and lunch thrown in.

  "Sugar Devil Island was giving rise to much gossip, as the marble tile for the floors was now being ferried through the swamps by slow motorless pirogue and people were asking over their coffee cups in Ruby River City and Mapleville whether or not Tarquin Blackwood had lost his mind.

  "How glad I was to be in an ancient palazzo in Venice while all that was going on.

  "It was some consolation to me that Sheriff Jeanfreau and his deputy Ugly Henderson had told everyone my tale of the man in the moonlight disposing of the two bodies. Because I hoped sincerely that people would take heed of it and not go boating around the island after dark.

  "Sometime during the first year, while we were still in Italy, I wrote to Stirling Oliver at Oak Haven and told him what I had done. I told him that Goblin's abilities to write to me via the computer were apparently waning, and that I felt a great emptiness in spite of all the excitement of the Grand Tour.

  "Stirling and I corresponded for a few months. He cautioned me not to rouse Goblin by letters that were either too short or too long, and he told me that according to his best guess, Goblin was a ghost connected in some way to the locality of Blackwood Manor, rather than to me personally, but of this Stirling wasn't perfectly sure.

  " 'Try to experience your freedom from him,' he wrote. 'That is, try to enjoy it, and tell me whether or not you succeed. You might also ask those around you if they see any change in you. Mrs. McQueen, in particular, might illuminate you in some way. ¡¯

  "I took his advice, and, indeed, Aunt Queen did have some reaction for me.

  " 'You're really with us, my little darling,' she said. 'You're not distracted, talking to him. You're not fearful of what he might do. You're not always looking out of the corner of your eye. ¡¯

  "She went on withou
t any coaxing. 'You're much better this way, my sweet little boy. You're infinitely better. I see it so plainly because I know you as no one else does. It's time to put aside the things of childhood, and Goblin is of childhood. ' She looked kindly on me as she spoke these words.

  "And thus it was that my correspondence with Goblin trailed off into silence, and my beloved spirit, my counterpart, my doppelg?nger disappeared beyond my reach. And believe me, it was beyond my reach. I tried with some desultory messages to summon him from the shadows, but they failed.

  "And as Blackwood Manor prospered with every blessing under Jasmine's reign as Queen, as the carols were sung at Christmas, as the feasts were prepared at Easter, as the flowers bloomed in Pops' beloved flower beds, we traveled on our circuitous odyssey and Goblin drifted beyond the pale.

  "Of course I didn't settle for only letters with Mona. Many a night I spent on the phone with her, and always we ended with passionate assurances that we lived only for each other -- there was no question of it now, Ophelia Immortal and Noble Abelard would someday be in a chaste marriage (lust without penetration) -- and our written correspondence became our fallback when odd hours kept us apart.

  "Many times I got Michael or Rowan when I called, and I never failed to exact the confirmation that Mona's condition was stable, that she had no need of me, and many a time, much to my amazement, Michael volunteered that the relationship had been a godsend because Mona had stopped her erotic roaming and was now 'living' for my E-mails and phone calls and spending all the rest of her life hard at work on the Mayfair Legacy, seeking to understand and participate in the investments, and also working on the family tree.

  " 'She's a bit scornful of her home teacher,' Michael said. 'I wish she'd read more books. But I do get her to watch classic films with me. That's one good thing, don't you think?¡¯

  " 'Oh, definitely,' I said. 'No one can move forward creatively until they've seen The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann. Am I not profoundly right?¡¯

  " 'Yes, you are,' he laughed. 'And she does have them under her belt. Last night I got her to watch Black Narcissus. ¡¯

  " 'Now that's an eerie one,' I said. 'I bet she loved it. ¡¯

  " 'Ask her,' he said. 'Here she is, Noble Abelard, give everyone there my love. ¡¯

  "And so my life ran on for three blissful and action-packed years.

  "I grew to be six feet four inches in height.

  "I saw the world's most beautiful and wondrous sights. I went with my joyous company as far south as Abu Simbel in Egypt and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and as far north as Ireland and Scotland. I went as far east as St. Petersburg. As far west as Morocco and Spain.

  "There was no great order and no great thrift to the manner in which we traveled. Back and forth we went often. It had something to do with the seasons. It had everything to do with desire and whim.

  "Tommy and Nash worked intensely on homework for the school board of Ruby River City. But in the main, Tommy received his knowledge as I did -- from Aunt Queen and Nash drawing our attention to things we might otherwise have missed, from Aunt Queen and Nash giving us the cultural background of the things we saw and telling us marvelous stories that had to do with the famous persons connected to monuments, countries, culture and time.

  "There was such a richness to all of it that I felt a fool for not having yielded to Aunt Queen's requests that I travel made so many years before. It seemed the arrogance of ignorance that I had refused to join her. But as she said to comfort me, it was not a time for regretting things. It was a time for embracing the entire world.

  "Let me also note that no matter how much we saw or how late in the day we toured, I still managed to read Dickens for Nash, and he greatly increased my appreciation of Great Expectations, David Copperfield, The Old Curiosity Shop and Little Dorrit. I also investigated the Bront? sisters with keen delight, swallowing Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. If only I had been a better reader I might have accomplished more. I tried hard with Milton, but I couldn't remember what I read of Paradise Lost, no matter how hard I tried, so I put it by for Keats, reading the odes aloud until I had them memorized.

  "All was bliss for us as we roamed. But not so with everyone. In the middle of our second year, Jasmine called to let us know that Patsy had gone through her income entirely for that period (staggering), and had gotten Clem to invest his entire inheritance from Pops in a rock album which had flopped, and Clem was now blaming Patsy for having tricked him and wanted to sue her.

  "At Aunt Queen's behest I got on the phone with our lawyer, Grady Breen, and ascertained that Patsy had spent all the money on a rock video, the making of which had cost a million dollars, what with a foreign director and cinematographer, and then all the big cable music networks had failed to give it airtime.

  "Clem had not been wearing blinders when he sunk his hundred thousand into the deal, and he was, in Grady's words, no fool, but I told Grady to pay him off and be done with it. As for Patsy, if she wanted money, just give it to her. She did want money and he would give it to her.

  "In closing, I asked Grady if Patsy was having any success at all with her music. He replied that she was very successful of late with the good clubs, playing House of Blues all over the country. Her album was selling about three hundred thousand copies. But that's nothing compared to the million copies she longed to sell, and which she needed to sell to attain the fame she wanted. She had simply overestimated her name-brand appeal with this video she had made. It had been a little too soon for her.

  "I didn't dare to ask directly about her health. I put it simply: 'Have you recently seen her?¡¯

  " 'Yes,' said Grady. 'She was just on Austin City Limits. She's as pretty as ever. Your mother has always been a pretty gal. I'm old enough to say that much, don't you think?¡¯

  " 'Yes, sir,' I said.

  "And so back at home, Patsy was still being Patsy.

  "Now that I have said all the above -- dispatching all subjects pertaining to this period -- let me return to the matter of Pompeii.

  "Of course I was eager to see the ruins, but I couldn't forget the spell which Petronia had cast over me when she had come to Blackwood Manor, and Aunt Queen had thoughts of her own about it, though they were far less alarmist than mine. We had discussed Petronia but only with some strain, Aunt Queen not quite forgiving me for my denouncing of Petronia and not quite believing that Petronia wasn't human and that Petronia had dumped two bodies in the swamp.

  "As for me, I believed everything, and I wanted to see if the ruins of Pompeii -- the excavations of an entire city once buried under ash and rubble -- would bring to mind the images which Petronia had planted in my mind.

  "I wasn't finished with Petronia.

  "Back at home the renovations of the Hermitage were being completed to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and packets of color photographs had come to me revealing the stunning little house. Its interior rafters had been boldly gilded, Oriental rugs from my catalog collection were scattered over its shining marble and I had even ordered some ornate furnishings for it by long-distance from Hurwitz Mintz, in New Orleans. The place now sported velvet sofas and torch¨¨re lamps. It had a cluster of swan-backed chairs. All the comforts were connected in its spacious bathroom. Its new glass windows were kept shining clean.

  "Allen had reported more than once that 'someone' was using the place in the evenings, that books were found on the desk (and never disturbed) and there were candles in evidence and ashes in the fireplace. So my partner was back in action. What did I expect? Had I not capitulated to every demand? But who had first thought of these efficacious designs? Was it not me?

  "I was foolishly fascinated.

  "And I was outraged. And too young perhaps to know the difference.

  "And so I came to Pompeii on our third trip to Italy, not too far before the very end of our odyssey, in a bold and combative and curious frame of mind, ready at last to see the legendary spot.

  "Aunt Queen
probably did not even remember Petronia's spellbinding tale of that long-ago night. Nash spoke of it casually to me. Tommy and Cindy, the nurse, were merely happy to see one of the most famous ruins in the world.

  "Coming by private car from our luxurious hotel in Naples, we visited the city early in the day. We had a leisurely stroll throughout the narrow rutted stone streets, knowing that we would come back tomorrow and tomorrow, and I felt everywhere the slight, thrilling frisson of Petronia's words. The sun was shining brilliantly, and Mount Vesuvius seemed safe and silent, a pale bluish sentinel of a mountain rather than anything that could have destroyed this little city, this small grid of multitudinous lives, in the space of half a day.

  "We entered many of the partially restored houses, touching the walls only lightly with great reverence or not at all. There was a hush around us, even though tourists came and went, and it was hard for me to lift the veil of death that hung over the city so that I could imagine it alive again.

  "Aunt Queen was intrepid as she led our little party to the House of the Faun and the Villa of the Mysteries. At last we came to the museum, and there I saw the natural white sculptures which had been made of those who had died in the ash and left nothing but the shape of their bodies behind. Poured plaster had immortalized their final moments, and I felt so moved by these featureless figures, drawn together in sudden death, that I was about to cry.

  "Finally we went back to our rooms at the hotel. The night sky over the Bay of Naples was pregnant with a thousand stars. I opened the doors to the balcony and looked out over the bay and counted myself one of the happiest people alive. For a long while I stood at the stone balustrade. I felt pure contentment, as if I'd conquered Petronia and Goblin and Rebecca, and my future belonged only to me. Mona was doing wonderfully well. Even Aunt Queen seemed immortal -- never to die as long as I did not die. Always to be with me.

  "Finally I was tired and happy to be so. Putting on my customary nightshirt, though it was a bit warm for the lovely fragrant night, I lay down on the fresh pillow and drifted into sleep.

  "Within seconds, it seemed, I was in Pompeii. I was running, pushing before me a reluctant group of slaves who wouldn't believe me that the mountain would soon rain down its fury on us, that it would demolish everything, including our lives. Through the gates of the city we ran and down to the seashore and into the waiting boat. Out to sea we went and then came the eruption, the dark spume rising, the sky darkening. A hideous roar came from the mountain. Everywhere boats rocked on the water. 'Keep going!' I shouted. People shrieked and screamed. 'Make the crossing,' I pleaded. Slaves jumped into the water. 'No, the boat's faster,' I insisted. The oars were dropped. The boat went over. I was drowning. The sea rose and fell. I swallowed water. Again came that unspeakable thunder.

  "I woke up. I wouldn't dream this dream! I felt terror. I felt another body enveloping mine. And against the bright blue of the night sky I saw a figure on the balcony, a figure I knew to be Petronia.

  " 'You devil!' I declared. I shot up from the bed and I ran at the figure, only the figure wasn't there. Shaking violently I stood at the balustrade and looked out into the darkness, as frightened as ever I'd been in my life, and as angry as well.

  "I couldn't abide this terror, yet I couldn't put an end to it. Finally, grabbing my robe, I went out of the room and down the hall to Aunt Queen's suite. I pounded on her door.

  "Cindy, our sweetheart of a nurse, answered.

  " 'Aunt Queen, I have to sleep with you,' I said, charging towards her bed. 'It's a nightmare. It's that evil Petronia. ¡¯

  " 'You come get in this bed with me right now, you poor little boy,' she said.

  "And I did exactly that.

  " 'Now, now, darling, don't fret,' she said. 'You are shaking! Now go to sleep. Tomorrow we'll go to Torre del Greco, and we'll buy lots of beautiful cameos, and you can help me as you always do. ¡¯

  "Cindy climbed back into the other bed. The curtains blew out from the open windows. I felt safe with the two of them. I went to sleep again, dreaming of Blackwood Manor, dreaming of Tommy living with us, dreaming of Mona, dreaming of so many things, but never bad things, never ghosts, never evil spirits, never darkness, never disaster, never death.

  "Had Petronia really been there? Was it a spell? I'll never know.

  "But let me bring to a close the story of our happy wanderings. Because it did come time for us to go home.

  "Aunt Queen could go no farther. She was simply too weak; her blood pressure was too high. She had sprained her wrist, and who knew when an ankle sprain would more severely hamper her? She was also battling some form of arthritis and her joints had begun to swell. Her exhaustion was defeating her. She could not keep up with her own pace. She was angry with her own weakness.

  "Finally, Cindy, the nurse, became adamant. 'I love these grand hotels as much as anybody,' she said, 'but you belong at home, Aunt Queen! You're going to take a bad fall! You can't go on like this. ¡¯

  "I joined my voice to Cindy's and so did little Tommy, who was by this time a pretty tall twelve years of age, and finally Nash chimed in with a solemn declaration: 'Mrs. McQueen, you've been valiant, but it is now time for you to retire to Blackwood Manor and reign in state as the irrepressibly entertaining steel magnolia which we all know you to be. ¡¯

  "We were in Cairo when the decision was reached, and we flew on to Rome, where our adventure had begun, for a last few nights at the Hotel Hassler. I knew by this time that I had been negligent in not proposing the return because I had not wanted to be accused of self-interest in my love and longing for Mona.

  "And I was anxious about Mona. She hadn't answered my E-mails for over two weeks.

  "As soon as we were checked in -- I was in a huge suite with a very long broad terrace, right below Aunt Queen, who had the penthouse with Cindy -- I tried to reach Mona by phone and got a taciturn, somewhat solemn Rowan.

  " 'She's in Mayfair Medical for some tests, Quinn,' she said. 'She's likely to be there for several months. She won't be able to see you. ¡¯

  " 'My God, you mean she's taken a turn for the worse!' I said. 'Dr. Mayfair, tell me the truth. What's happening to her?¡¯

  " 'I don't know, Quinn,' she said in her beguiling husky voice. 'Those are hard words for a doctor to say, believe you me. But I don't. That's why we're testing her. Her immune system's compromised. She's been running a fever for months. Somebody sneezes in the same room with her and she comes down with double pneumonia. ¡¯

  " 'Good God,' I responded. As usual Rowan's brand of truth was a little too harsh for me. Yet I told myself fiercely that I wanted it. 'Why can't I talk with her by phone?¡¯

  " 'I don't want her upset by anything now, Quinn,' said Rowan. 'And if she knew you were on your way home, she'd be upset that she couldn't see you. That's why she's in isolation. She's in a plastic bubble as far as the world's concerned, with a VCR and a monitor and a stack of vintage movies. She's eating popcorn and ice cream and chocolates and drinking milk. She knows you're having fun in Europe, and that's the way it has to stay for now. ¡¯

  " 'But Rowan,' I pleaded. 'Surely she's getting my E-mails!¡¯

  " 'No, Quinn, she's resting. I took the computer away. ¡¯

  "I was maddened. Just maddened. Here we were on our way home at last and she was beyond my reach. But the worst news was that she was sick! Too sick perhaps to even handle the computer!

  " 'Rowan, listen, has she been sick all along? Has she been protecting me from it?¡¯

  "There was a long silence, and then she said in her characteristic straightforward fashion, 'Yes, Quinn, I'd say that's what she's been doing. But I think you knew that when you left. You knew she was undergoing a continuous treatment. She's been at various plateaus. But she's never really rallied. ¡¯

  "I gasped. I didn't know if it was audible.

  " 'I've got to see her when I come home,' I said.

  " 'We'll arrange it,' she responded, 'as soon as it's possible. But it can't be ri
ght away. ¡¯

  " 'Can you give her my love?' I asked. 'Can you tell her I called? Can you tell her I've sent her letters?¡¯

  " 'Yes, that I will do tonight,' she said, 'when I see her. And tomorrow and the day after. ¡¯

  " 'Oh, thank you, Rowan, God love you, Rowan. Please, please tell her how much I love her. ¡¯

  " 'Quinn, there's something else I want to say,' she said, surprising me. 'I know Michael's said it to you. Let me say it too. You really helped Mona. You got Mona to stop doing things that hurt her. You made her happy. ¡¯

  " 'Rowan, you're frightening me,' I said. 'You're making it sound past tense. ¡¯

  " 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean it to sound that way,' she said. 'I meant to say that during this time she's been deeply and totally in love with you. She's been writing to you, or talking to you by phone, instead of fighting us. She asks about you all the time. ¡¯

  "I felt the chills come over me. My darling Mona. What had I done in leaving her? Had I fallen so in love with the letters and phone calls of Ophelia Immortal that I lost Mona herself?

  " 'Thank you, Rowan,' I said. 'Thank you always. ' There were so many more questions I wanted to ask, but I didn't dare to try it. I was so afraid.

  "That night the champagne flowed in Aunt Queen's suite. Nash, who had drunk far too much of it, but with our liberal encouragement, proposed toast after toast to the lady he loved most in this world, Mrs. Lorraine McQueen; and young Tommy, now age thirteen by a matter of two whole days, stood up to read a poem he had written for the occasion, declaring himself to have become a man thanks to his guardian and inspiration, nephew Tarquin Blackwood. Only I failed to comport myself in keeping with the occasion. I could only smile and salute everyone with my glass and say how very happy I was that we were returning home at last, to take stock of all we'd learned, and to all those we had missed in our journeying.

  "The fact was, a multitude of worries and apprehensions had a Byronic hold upon me. Not to see Mona was foremost among them. But I was also obsessed with Petronia, that she was occupying the Hermitage so boldly, and of course I was thinking of Goblin. Was I fool enough to believe that Goblin would not show himself to me as soon as I came within the orbit of Blackwood Manor? I was not.

  "And so the three-and-a-half-year intermezzo was ended.

  "The following morning we departed for Newark with a connecting flight to take us immediately to New Orleans. "
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