A conveyance was stationed in front of the house.
The coachman’s profile was dimly lit by his lantern. His face was markedly thin; I would have taken him for a specter were it not for the breaths of himself and his horse that I could just make out.
I took the lantern Clara had left for me on the porch and called as I approached, “Are you free, sir? I am going to the big house on the lake — beyond the lions.”
The coachman’s prominent jaw clenched.
Suddenly a movement inside the dark enclosure drew my attention. A willowy tenor broke the silence.
“Good God, man, my driver will not take you there. Even paupers dare not venture into that ruined district.”
“Ah — good evening again, doctor,” I said to the amorphous physician within. “I beg your pardon. I have mistaken your brougham for a cab.”
“Had you looked carefully, my dear young man, you would have observed my name on the side.”
I angled my lantern to illuminate an elaborate script that pronounced Dr. Barnaby Dimsby, Surgeon • Physician • Private Consultations.
“We have been waiting for you,” the clinician continued, “to advise you not to visit my patient again.”
My dislike of this appalling man was instantly compounded.
“Miss Catherine Bellefey is a frail young woman so resistant to treatment that she will not live for long. I will not sanction trivial attachments.”
She would not live for long?
“I believe Miss Bellefey’s attachments are her own concern,” I replied so unshakably that my feet felt like anchors in my boots. “And why, doctor, are you confident in a devastating prognosis of a lady who personified vitality three months ago?”
“That, my good man, is a family matter which will not be discussed with an ignoble stranger.”
He lit his pipe and I glimpsed what must have been the hook of his cane, for his hand descended to a curved shape as he shook out the flame. I heard two taps on the back of the driver’s box, and the carriage was off.
It vanished forthwith, for the lamplighter had not made his rounds.
The brisk clip-clop faded into silence, and I was glad for the walk.
Rather than casting abhorrence on the man — which I felt would have been entirely justified — I directed my thoughts to the bliss of having been in the company of Miss Bellefey. Our reconnection surged through my limbs so that I felt compelled to run — to mobilize the elation throughout my blood and my lungs.
But I was restrained by practical matters, the least of which being that my candle would snuff if I were to sprint.
Unspeakably more grievous, it seemed the doctor deemed Miss Bellefey’s condition so dire that she would soon die. One thought of her pallor and frailty and my heart constricted.
Yet I was seized by a vision of taking her hand on a warm summer day and running down the bluff with her. Our momentum would fill our bodies with exhilaration as we’d laugh and plummet faster and faster down to the lake.
We would drop, then, onto the sand and laze until we were so hot that we’d wade into the waves, floating on their undulence beneath the golden orb that beams the source of life.
The path ahead of me was dark, but to my left and right, house after house was lit up with cheer. Each was ornamented with exquisite details: grandly columned porches, ornate arches, lancet windows, gothic spires. Though not as immense as the house on the lake, these abodes had been built with the same pursuit of sublimity.
Beyond them was a park so perennial that it was called the Old Forest. Its white pines, blue spruces, and towering oaks were my companions for a mile before I reached the darkened lighthouse that had not lit the lake or guided ships in I knew not how long.
It was here that I began to keep an eye out for the lions Mrs. Bellefey had reminded me of.
By the light of my lantern, the canopy glimmered above me. There were maples so large that they were ten times my height, yet their lowest branches grazed my chest. Acorns crunched beneath my boots. The fragrance of composting leaves clung to the dampness of the night. Suddenly the flap of wings resounded as bats alighted into the naked air.
Hidden within the lushness, there gleamed by my lamp the sandstone sparkle of a lion.
As I parted the tangled brush that covered it, I beheld a pair of eyes that possessed an arresting regality, eyes that gazed upon the dark lake like a majestic kingdom.
Suddenly I recalled that only this lion was maned. I swept the vines from the other, and indeed it was a lioness, a queen reigning beside her king on the other side of the path.
I recalled how before the Mixes took me in, an older girl at the orphanage would take me and another boy on Sunday walks to this park. Dashing between us, she would lead us by the hand to where the vendors sold goods, then share with us the treasure she gleaned from a red wooden caravan. The wagon had a carved window and a ledge painted with white flowers, and a gypsy woman would rest her arms on the ledge as she handed the girl a checkered cloth filled with roasted chestnuts.
Then we would rush to a bench, devour the melty morsels, and marvel at the lions.
Presently there was a rustle behind me — a sudden sound like a boot sliding on leaves.
Who besides me would navigate this district in the dark — or the light?
“Not even a pauper,” as the doctor had put it.
Was it a deer, a rabbit, a cat, a hound?
I looked round, but nothing was there, as far as my lamp could reveal.
The air was clammy, and I was starting to shiver.
With a silent salutation to the lions, I exited the park, passed a forsaken church and a half mile of abandoned dwellings, and then beheld the house on the lake.
And my experiment affirmed my theory. For by altering my routine, the house — and indeed the night — proved quite different from the previous pattern.