When I got back to Mrs. Moth’s house, it was almost dark. I had not meant to spend so long in town.
In the front hall, I saw my suitcases.
“We thought you might like your own clothes,” said Mrs. Moth.
“You look pretty funny in mine,” said Hyacinth. I gave her a long hug. Hyacinth is one of my favorite people. Although she’s not particularly easy to hug. She’s so slender that there isn’t much there to hold on to, and you’re always careful anyway because she seems so delicate.
“Where were you?” I asked her.
“Dinner in half an hour!” said Mrs. Moth, disappearing into the kitchen.
“I’ll help you with your suitcases,” said Hyacinth.
We walked up the stairs, me following her, both of us lugging suitcases.
“How long are you all expecting me to stay?” I asked.
“As long as it takes,” she said.
Up in the tower room, we sat on the four-poster bed, Hyacinth with her legs crossed and me leaning back against the pillows.
“I tried to find him,” she said. “I looked everywhere I could think of, in the timestream. Places where we knew he had been.”
“And?” It was as though my heart had stopped beating. As though I couldn’t breathe.
“He wasn’t there. He wasn’t anywhere. It’s as though he’s disappeared into that tree, every version of him.”
I didn’t know what to say. I had been hoping that if he really was the only one who could get himself out, there would be another one of him, somewhen. I could feel the tears welling up. It would be embarrassing to cry in front of Hyacinth, so cool and proper.
“Thea, tell me what happened,” she said. “You were the last to see him.”
“But I only saw him go,” I said. “We were having breakfast.” In my apartment in Boston, where he had come to visit me, for only the second time. What were we to each other? Friends, certainly. Beyond that? I did not know. He had not spoken to me as anything other than a friend, since that kiss in the Other Country. But there had been letters, long telephone calls, telling me about his adventures in other times. The telephone would ring and he would say, “Hello from the fourteenth century, Thea. It’s a good thing you’re not here. There’s a famine, and we’ve eaten all the horses.” Or “I’m hanging out with Marie Antoinette,” which I have to admit would make me jealous.
He had shown up the previous night, said “I’m taking you out for a burger. Do you know I haven’t had a burger for a hundred years?” and then fallen asleep on the sofa. I had sat watching him for a while: the pale, lean face, the green eyes closed, the mouth open. Snoring slightly.
“We were having breakfast and he got a text message. He said he had to go.”
“Sorry, Thea,” he had said. “I’ll be back before the coffee gets cold.” That was the advantage of time travel. It didn’t much matter how long anything took. You could be back almost before you had left.
“Did he say who it was?”
“No, he didn’t say.”
Hyacinth sat silent, with her hands clasped in front of her. “I don’t know, Thea. No one knows how he got himself into that tree, or why. What they do know is that he put himself there, and he’s the only one strong enough to get himself out. Except Mother Night, and you know she never interferes.”
“Not even for him? He’s her son.”
“Especially not for him.”
“Then I’ll never see him again,” I said. The sense of despair that filled me was – like nothing I had ever felt, like an enormous emptiness inside me. As though I had been hollowed out. I remembered the card Madame Violette had laid down: Night. Except that Night had been filled with stars, and there were no stars in me, only darkness.
“What will I do?” I lay back and looked up at the canopy, which was made of the same burgundy brocade as the curtains.
“I promise we’ll think of something,” she said. “I promise, Thea.” She put her hand on my leg, as though to reassure me. But it didn’t. “Listen, let’s go down to dinner, all right? We’ll talk about it, me and Mrs. Moth and Miss Gray. I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
At any other time, it would have been such a treat – being at Mrs. Moth’s house. After my cold apartment in Boston, being in a place with blazing fires, where breakfast appeared beside your bed each morning, where there were endless paths to walk along over hills, through fields. Even now, I was glad to have such a place to go. It felt more like home than any house I had ever lived in. But how I wished the circumstances could have been different.
“Dinner!” came the call from downstairs.
And so we went down, and I tried to pretend, as I had been pretending for the last week, that the world had not been turned completely upside down.
(For those of you who are curious about what Mrs. Moth’s house looks like, I’m including a photograph of a house that looks very much like it. Here it is:
Except of course that Mrs. Moth’s house is surrounded by gardens, and an orchard, and fields. And in case you want to now what Thea looks like, here she is, writing in her Boston apartment:
She looks like Dora, except younger. And like she gets more sleep.)