The train station at Pebbleton, dark and sooty though it was, glistened in the mist. Electric lamps above the platform cast their light upon a thousand reflecting surfaces: the puddles along the tracks, the streaked windows of the station house, the umbrellas hoisted over huddled, indistinct figures on the platform. To a person of whimsical mind, the scene might resemble something from a tale, a magical gathering in a dark wood, the umbrellas looming like toadstools over fairy folk.
There was, in fact, such a person watching from the window of the approaching train, a boy of whimsical mind, to be sure (though whimsy was not the half of it, nor even the beginning), and the fairy-tale qualities of the scene occurred to him at once. So too did a great many other things, including the sentence “It glistened in the mist; the train hissed, and I listened,” a poetic train of thought that sounded rather like a train itself, which pleased him. But foremost in the boy’s mind was the awareness that Pebbleton station was his stop—the end of his train journey, the beginning of a new unknown.
He turned to his chaperone, a plump old woman with spectacles so large the brim of her hat rested upon their frames. “What shall we call this, Mrs. Ferrier—an arrival or a departure?”
Mrs. Ferrier was putting away her knitting needles. “I suppose both, Nicholas. Or however you like.” She clasped her bag and peered out the grimy window. “It’s a miserable night for either.”
“Shall I tell you what I’m thinking, Mrs. Ferrier?”
“Heavens no, Nicholas! That would take hours, and we have only moments. There, we’ve stopped.”
The old woman turned from the window to appraise his appearance, despite having already done so before they boarded the train. Nicholas doubted he had changed much in the course of their half day’s journey, and his reflection, easily seen in Mrs. Ferrier’s enormous spectacles, proved him right: He was still a skinny, towheaded nine-year-old with threadbare clothes and an unfortunate nose. Indeed, his nose was so long and lumpy that it drew attention away from his one good feature—his bright and impish green eyes—though Mrs. Ferrier had often remarked that someday, should Nicholas come to require spectacles, his nose would do an admirable job holding them in place. It was always best to be positive, she told him.
“Well?” he asked as she studied him. “Do you think they’ll take me? Or will they send me back and keep the money for their trouble?”
Mrs. Ferrier pursed her lips. “Please don’t be saucy, Nicholas. I say this for your sake. It’s nothing to me now, is it? Remember your manners, and make yourself useful around the orphanage. Start off on the right foot, and you’ll be happier for it.”
Nicholas feigned surprise. “Oh! You want me to be happy, Mrs. Ferrier?”
“Of course I do,” puffed the old woman as she struggled to her feet. “I want everyone to be happy, don’t I? Now follow me, and mind you don’t step on the backs of my shoes.”
Mrs. Ferrier and Nicholas were the only passengers to disembark the train. Several were boarding, however, and they crowded the aisles most inconveniently as they closed their umbrellas and removed their overcoats. By the time the old woman and her charge managed to descend the steps, the platform was empty save for one man in a somber gray suit and hat, standing rigidly beneath his umbrella. At the sight of them, he strode forward to shield Mrs. Ferrier with it. He was so tall that when he stood over Nicholas his face appeared mostly as a sharp, jutting chin and cavernous nostrils. His suit carried a faintly pleasant odor of pipe tobacco, which Nicholas liked, and the boy’s initial impression was neutral until Mr. Collum, which was the man’s name, introduced himself to Mrs. Ferrier and told Nicholas to run and fetch his trunk.
“There’s no trunk to fetch, sir,” said Nicholas, blinking in the mist (for he stood outside the umbrella’s protection). “Only this suitcase. I’m Nicholas, sir. Nicholas Benedict.” He held out his hand.
“No trunk?” said Mr. Collum, frowning. “Well, I daresay that’s common enough, though I hadn’t expected it. I haven’t met a child at the station before, you see.” He was speaking directly to Mrs. Ferrier and appeared not to have noticed Nicholas’s outstretched hand. “I assumed directorship of the Manor only this spring, as I’m sure Mr. Cuckieu told you.”
“The Manor?” said Mrs. Ferrier with a confused look.
“Forgive me,” Mr. Collum said. “You must know the orphanage as Rothschild’s End—or ’Child’s End, as it is often abbreviated. In these parts, however, it is quite common to shorten the name still further, for ease of speaking, and to refer to the place simply as the Manor. The residence at ’Child’s End is the only manor in the area, you see, so this leads to no confusion.”
Nicholas began to ask a question, but though he spoke clearly and politely enough, Mr. Collum continued speaking to Mrs. Ferrier as if Nicholas hadn’t uttered a word.
“Now, madam,” Mr. Collum said, “allow me to accompany you inside the station house, where you can wait out of the damp. I would invite you to the Manor for refreshment, but I’m afraid it’s quite a long ride from Pebbleton. Our kettle would hardly have begun to whistle before your train does—it’s due to arrive at nine.”
Nicholas and Mrs. Ferrier, who was trying not to look shattered at the prospect of waiting in the station house for two hours, followed Mr. Collum into a dim, drafty room with sawdust on the floor and benches along the walls. Near the ticket counter, the stationmaster was telling the train conductor about a wicked egg thief who had visited his barn the night before. The conductor, seeing that Mrs. Ferrier and Nicholas had disembarked at last, gestured at the clock, and the stationmaster accompanied him back out to the train, hurrying to finish his story. The newcomers were left alone with a red-haired man who sat on one of the benches, absorbed in a rain-spotted newspaper.
“May I just have a brief word with you, Mr. Collum?” asked Mrs. Ferrier. “A private word?”
“Of course,” said Mr. Collum, who had yet to look directly at Nicholas but did seem aware of him, for he held up a finger to indicate that the boy should stay put. He drew Mrs. Ferrier over to the ticket counter, where they stood with their backs to the room and spoke in hushed voices.
Nicholas strained his ears but could not make out a word of their conversation, so he turned his attention to the red-haired newspaper reader. The man appeared to be of late middle age, perhaps a decade older than Mr. Collum. His tanned, rough hands suggested a different sort of labor from that which occupied the orphanage director (whose own pale fingers were carefully manicured and, excepting one inky smear, as clean as soap could make them). A faint impression in the man’s hair suggested he’d been wearing a hat, though Nicholas saw none on the bench, nor any on the hat rack nearby. With some difficulty the man turned to a different section in his newspaper (the damp pages clung together) and resumed his reading, mouthing the words to himself. Nicholas, watching his lips, followed along for a tedious ten seconds (“… impact on the price of wheat since the war’s conclusion…”) before losing patience and interest.
He glanced at the schedule above the ticket counter. Mrs. Ferrier’s nine o’clock train was just the fifth one of the day; it was also the last. Pebbleton, it seemed, was not quite on the way to anywhere. Nicholas stepped to the nearest window facing the street. At the curb sat an aged Studebaker with mud on its tires and steam rising from its hood. Beyond it Nicholas could see most of Pebbleton without moving his head. A handful of shops, a few market stalls closed down for the day, an occasional parked automobile. In the gloomy distance, a grain silo put Nicholas in mind of a lighthouse seen through fog. A glary smudge over the trees to the west was all the sunset the evening could muster.
Behind the station house, the train sounded its whistle. Nicholas perked up his ears, hoping the adults would raise their voices. Naturally he was curious to know what they were saying about him. But the clamor of the departing train was so overwhelming that Nicholas couldn’t have heard them if they shouted. The windows rattled; the plank floors trembled. Then a ghostly reflection appeared in the window behind his own, and Nicholas turned to discover Mrs. Ferrier looking down on him with grave finality. Mr. Collum lingered at the ticket counter, checking his pocket watch against the station house clock.
For what would be the last time, the old woman and young boy regarded each other. They were compelled to wait for the train to finish leaving the station before attempting to speak, however, which gave Nicholas ample time to reflect upon the occasion. He had wondered what sort of expression Mrs. Ferrier would put on for their parting, and now that the moment was at hand, he found it to be rather what he had expected: polite, businesslike, and almost comically serious. She was serious for his sake, he knew, in case he was afraid or sad. She was not much attached to Nicholas, perhaps because of his habitual impertinence—she thought him too saucy by far—but Mrs. Ferrier believed there was a way of doing things, and because she took comfort in this belief, she always made an effort.
She need not have bothered, at least not for Nicholas’s sake. He was anything but sad. The last orphanage had been the worst yet, and he was glad to leave it. In fact, his time there had been so awful that before his departure he had secretly deposited sardines in many a tormentor’s pillowcase, and had clicked his heels as he went out the door. No, he was far from sad, and though certainly nervous, he was not afraid, either. Or not very afraid, anyway. The Manor could hardly be worse than the last place, and there was always the chance it would be better.
The train’s caboose had not yet cleared the station when the redheaded man rose, stretched, rearranged his newspaper, and exited the station house. Mr. Collum, meanwhile, had finished adjusting his watch and tucked it away. He went to the open door and paused. Glancing at Mrs. Ferrier, he touched his hat in what appeared to be a courteous farewell—though he might simply have been lowering its brim against the weather—and stepped outside with his umbrella. All of this had occurred as if in pantomime, with the train’s rumbling, screeching, and clattering crowding out all other sound. When at last something like silence returned to the station house, Mrs. Ferrier laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Nicholas, you know what you must do,” she said.
“Oh yes, Mrs. Ferrier! I’m to carry my suitcase out to that Studebaker, and never mind the drizzle. I imagine I’ll sit in the back while Mr. Collum rides in front with the driver.”
Mrs. Ferrier blinked. “The driver?”
“Why, sure,” said Nicholas with a shrug. “That red-haired man with the new hat.”
“The red-haired man…” Straightening, Mrs. Ferrier looked out the window behind him. Her eyebrows rose in surprise. “Well, yes, you’re correct, though it isn’t at all what I was going to say. I was going to say…” She noticed the boy staring at her expectantly, the corners of his lips twitching as if he was suppressing a smile, and she sighed. “Oh, very well, Nicholas. Tell me how you knew all that. This will be my last opportunity to hear one of your exhausting explanations.”
Nicholas grinned, raised his chin like a songbird preparing to sing, and throwing his arms out for emphasis, burst forth with an astonishing flurry of words: “Well, the hat must be new, don’t you think? Otherwise he wouldn’t have left it in the Studebaker to spare it getting wet. Which is a funny thing, in my opinion, since hats are meant to protect their owners and not the other way around. But I’ve known quite a lot of people who go to amazing trouble on behalf of their hats, haven’t you, Mrs. Ferrier? I wonder what happened to his umbrella, though? Perhaps he lost it. Anyway, I do wish he’d left a section of the newspaper for me—to cover my head with, you know, as he did, to keep it dry.”
“I’m sure he meant to,” said the old woman after a confused pause, “but only forgot.” (This was the sort of thing Mrs. Ferrier always said in such cases, as part of her effort to be positive.) “But how did you know he was Mr. Collum’s driver?”
Nicholas laughed. It was a squeaky, stuttering laugh, rather like the nickering of a pony. “I certainly doubt he’s a passenger! The next train doesn’t arrive for two hours, so it’s not likely he was waiting for that, is it? Besides, he left when Mr. Collum did, and where else would he be going in this weather if not to that old Studebaker at the curb? It obviously just got here from somewhere out in the country—its engine is still hot and there’s mud on the tires—and Mr. Collum said it’s a long ride to the Manor. He did say ride rather than drive, you know, so I got the feeling he didn’t intend to sit behind the wheel himself. Now, if there had been horses outside, especially a horse with an umbrella stand attached to it”—here Nicholas nickered again—“I might have come to a different…”
Mrs. Ferrier was shaking her head, a common enough response to everything Nicholas said that he would have continued his speech unabated had she not held up a hand to check him. He’d been about to explain half a dozen other reasons he’d come to this conclusion about the red-haired man, as well as several he hadn’t consciously thought of yet but which were sure to occur to him as he spoke. But Nicholas was used to being shushed by Mrs. Ferrier, and at any rate he knew that delaying Mr. Collum would not serve him well. So he let the explanations go with a shrug, and waited for Mrs. Ferrier to proceed.
“Thank you, Nicholas. That will be more than enough to make my poor head ache for the next two hours.” Mrs. Ferrier cleared her throat. “And now this is goodbye. When I said that you know what you must do, I only meant to remind you to hold your tongue in check, and to make yourself useful. There, that’s the last I’ll say.” She lifted his chin with her finger and looked once more into his eyes—a little wonderingly at first, as if she saw some mystery there she could never hope to fathom, and then with a different sort of expression Nicholas hadn’t seen in her eyes before, something between sadness and exhaustion. She said, “I wish you better luck, child. Better luck than you’ve had. Now go on. Don’t keep Mr. Collum waiting.”
“Au revoir and adios, Mrs. Ferrier!” said Nicholas spryly, offering her an exaggerated military salute.
Mrs. Ferrier flinched and rubbed her temples, for Nicholas truly had given her a headache. Not for the first time she wondered how the boy could seem to know so much and yet so little. Here, at their final parting, he couldn’t think of more suitable things to say? No best wishes, nor even a word of thanks? No, he only spun on his heels, grabbed his suitcase, and marched out into the next chapter of his life, a brash young soldier headed into a battle he felt certain of winning. He never even looked back.
Unlike her former young charge—now kicking the door closed behind him with a shocking bang—poor Mrs. Ferrier could not have thought of more suitable words for the occasion. Nicholas Benedict did have an exceptional gift for knowing things (more exceptional, in fact, than most adults would have thought possible), and yet not even he could know that this next chapter was to be the most unusual—and most important—of his entire childhood. Indeed, the strange days that lay ahead would change him forever, though for now they had less substance than the mist through which he ran.
Misery and joy. Discovery and danger. Mystery and treasure. For now, all were secrets waiting to be revealed.
For now, Nicholas Benedict was just a remarkable young orphan with secrets of his own, hastening to the Studebaker, where Mr. Collum sat in the front passenger seat looking impatient, and the red-haired driver was adjusting the rearview mirror, the better to admire his new hat.
The driver, Mr. Pileus, was a taciturn man. He spoke only when spoken to, and only if he absolutely must. He steered the old Studebaker with a focused, silent intensity, checking the mirrors so often he seemed afraid they might sneak away. Eventually Nicholas would learn that Mr. Pileus was not just the driver but the Manor’s handyman, carpenter, and mechanic as well. He would learn this from others, though—certainly not from Mr. Pileus or Mr. Collum. At the moment, neither man seemed in any hurry to inform Nicholas about anything.
Mr. Collum, for his part, was busy paging through a business ledger, evidently preoccupied with urgent matters of income and expenses. From time to time he would press a magnifying loupe against his left eye—not a monocle but an actual loupe, the powerful sort used by jewelers and clockmakers to show them the imperceptible flaws in a diamond or the tiny workings of a watch. Nicholas supposed he must be almost blind in that eye. Each time, after studying the page for several seconds, Mr. Collum would remove the loupe with a bemused grunt. This was the only sound he made, however.
Nicholas watched the dusky countryside glide past, miles of rolling farmland and forested hills, until it was too dark to see anything but fence posts. He climbed onto his knees to see into the front, where the Studebaker’s illuminated dials and gauges drew his attention. He was instantly curious about their functions and inner workings; he’d always been drawn to devices and contraptions of any kind, though he was never allowed to touch them. He wondered if Mr. Collum would resent being asked to turn on the radio; or rather, he tried to convince himself that Mr. Collum would not, when he knew positively that Mr. Collum would.
It had grown too dark for Mr. Collum to study his ledger, and yet he had remained silent, apparently deep in thought, his eyes resting on a page it was no longer possible for him to read. Finally, however, he sighed, put away his ledger and loupe, and began to speak. He didn’t turn in his seat but simply lifted his head so that his voice would carry. “Are you awake, Nicholas?”
“Wide awake, Mr. Collum! And I’m eager to—”
“Very good,” said the orphanage director. “I was wondering, of course, because of your condition. I would not wish to waste time speaking if my words were not being attended. Tell me, Nicholas, how often do you sail off to sleep? Tomorrow the boys begin metalworking—during the summer we have a different skills activity each week—and naturally it would not do for you to fall asleep with some sharp implement in hand.”
The silent Mr. Pileus shuddered, evidently horrified at the thought, and cast a fleeting, reproachful glance at Nicholas in the rearview mirror, as if Nicholas had already wounded himself, and furthermore had done so on purpose.
“That would be unfortunate, sir,” said Nicholas, “but it’s easy enough to avoid. When I have a drowsy spell—which is only every few hours or so—I can feel it coming on in time to lie down. And usually I wake up in a matter of minutes.”
“Is that all?” Mr. Collum asked. “I got the impression from your Mr. Cuckieu that you often dropped off without warning—just fell to the floor as though your string had been clipped.”
“Oh no, sir!” Nicholas protested. “Well, I suppose I did have a few spells like that when the symptoms were first setting in, but that was over a year ago. It never happens anymore.”
“I am heartily glad to hear it,” said Mr. Collum, and he did sound relieved. “Every member of our small staff has multiple duties, you see. The less bandaging and stitching our nurse is compelled to do, the more she is able to attend to other tasks. I’m sure you understand that. In fact”—here Mr. Collum turned in his seat to look back at Nicholas—“your chaperone, Mrs. Ferrier, seemed eager to convince me that there is little you do not understand. She thought I might find a boy of unusual intelligence to be especially useful at the Manor. Do you consider yourself unusually intelligent, Nicholas?”
Mr. Collum was studying him with narrowed eyes, clearly ready to judge his reply. Nicholas thought fast. A truthful answer would make him sound conceited. Also, Mr. Collum seemed irritated with Mrs. Ferrier, and Nicholas realized it would be wise to distance himself from her. “I’m sure I’m not the best judge of that, Mr. Collum, though I’ve been told that I’m bright.”
“By Mrs. Ferrier, no doubt,” said Mr. Collum with a slight shake of his head. “My own impression, Nicholas, was that she wished to give you an advantage. Under such circumstances, crafty matrons like Mrs. Ferrier will make all kinds of unsupported claims. They cannot be blamed, I’m sure, though it does try one’s patience.”
“I’m sure it must, sir,” said Nicholas with an uncomfortable flutter in his belly, as if the Studebaker had just topped a hill at high speed. They were moving along a flat stretch of road, though, and quite slowly at that.
“However…” Mr. Collum scratched his sharp chin. “She was most adamant, your Mrs. Ferrier. She insisted you were the most intelligent person—by far—whom she had ever known in her many long years of life. ‘More intelligent than yourself, madam?’ I asked her, and I’m sorry to say, Nicholas, that she readily confirmed this, which did nothing to add credibility to her claim. I mean to say that if Mrs. Ferrier truly believes that a nine-year-old boy is more intelligent than she is, perhaps that is indeed the case. But if it is the case, you can see why I’m disinclined to trust Mrs. Ferrier’s general opinion about intelligence. Do you follow my reasoning, Nicholas?”
“I think so, sir,” Nicholas replied quietly.
“You think so,” said Mr. Collum in a satisfied tone, as if Nicholas’s reply had offered some proof of his suspicions. He turned to face forward again. “Exactly.”
In the brief silence that followed, as Nicholas struggled to master his disappointment, the uncomfortable flutter in his belly worsened to a disagreeable churning, as if he had been forced to swallow something repulsive. His disappointment was awfully bitter. Nicholas had hoped to impress this new director—to amaze him, even, and win his favor. Though it had never exactly worked out that way before, this time Nicholas was older and had intended to benefit from his experience. He had never counted on Mrs. Ferrier trying to look out for him, if indeed that was what she’d been doing. Now Mr. Collum had formed his opinion and would resent having it changed. Nicholas had seen that happen before, with unpleasant results.
How should he proceed, then? He had plotted any number of different strategies (plotting strategies was the sort of thing Nicholas did when other children were playing jacks or Old Maid), but none seemed right under the circumstances, and he felt beset by uncertainties.
Only one thing was certain. No matter what, Nicholas would guard his secret—the awful secret, the one he had lied to Mr. Collum about—with every measure of wit he possessed: those unpredictable sleeping episodes, the attacks that struck without warning, dropping him from consciousness like a trapdoor into a black dungeon—oh no, Nicholas would never let on about those. For if ever word got out that strong emotions could do such a thing to him, that all it took to topple him was a too-hot flash of anger, a too-boisterous peal of laughter… well, after that there would be no end to the persecution.
Nicholas knew this from experience, unfortunately. At Littleview his condition had tempted even the mildest, most good-natured children to make sport of him, to make a regular game of upsetting him or getting him to laugh. (And those pranks, though horrible enough, were nothing compared to what the more vicious children had done.) Having endured such torments, he would have to be a fool to reveal his greatest weakness to anyone at ’Child’s End—and Nicholas Benedict was no fool.
You only have to pretend to be one for Mr. Collum, he thought grimly. And keep your emotions in check.
“I understand you’ve lived in several different orphanages, Nicholas,” said Mr. Collum, breaking the silence. He turned his head slightly, so that Nicholas saw the director’s face in dark profile. So pronounced and angular were his features—the heavy brow, the straight nose, the jutting chin—they might have been chiseled from stone. “I assume you’re accustomed to chores, therefore, but you must be prepared for an extra share at the Manor. In difficult times, we must all of us pull our own weight and then some.”
“Absolutely, Mr. Collum. Are these difficult times, then?”
Mr. Collum snorted violently. Or perhaps he sneezed. Nicholas wasn’t entirely sure. At any rate, he made a loud, abrupt sound with his nose. “My predecessor, Nicholas—the previous, so-called director of Rothschild’s End—took a respectable institution and single-handedly dragged it into disrepute. Spent it to the brink of ruin! Reckless, criminal, indecent behavior! And now the task has fallen to me to raise it up again. Oh, these are indeed difficult times at the Manor, young man. I can vouchsafe you that. But we must rise to the challenge! Do you hear me, Nicholas? Are you awake back there?”
“Yes, sir! ‘We must rise to the challenge,’ sir!” Nicholas repeated.
“That is correct,” Mr. Collum said. “And to do so, every staff member and every child must dutifully carry out his several responsibilities. You will get on well if only you remember this, Nicholas: Perform your duties and be mindful of the rules.”
Nicholas was about to assure Mr. Collum that no child was more dutiful or mindful of rules than he was, when the Studebaker stopped at a deserted intersection. Stretching his neck, Nicholas peered left and right. As far as he could tell, they were still in the middle of empty farmland—the middle of nowhere—and the intersection was nothing more than a country crossroads.
Mr. Collum groaned. “Must you, Mr. Pileus? It’s quite late, you know.”
Mr. Pileus set his hat carefully on the dashboard and climbed out of the automobile. In the beam of the Studebaker’s headlamps, he edged closer to the crossroads, where he stood in an attitude of attention, shielding his eyes from the mist, looking down the road to the left. Then he turned and looked right.
Mr. Collum gave a hiss of exasperation. “What does the man expect to see?”
When at last Mr. Pileus was satisfied that no automobiles were hurtling along the road without headlamps—at least not in the immediate vicinity—he hurried back to the Studebaker, jumped in, and roared forward to get through the intersection before the traffic circumstances changed.
“Mr. Pileus!” said Mr. Collum, speaking up to be heard over the horn, which Mr. Pileus was vigorously sounding as they crossed. “I appreciate your caution, truly I do, but have you ever seen any other automobile on this road at night?”
Mr. Pileus let off the horn—they had made it safely across—and mumbled something about poor visibility.
Mr. Collum sighed heavily through his nose and turned halfway toward Nicholas again. “As I was saying, Nicholas, you shall get on well enough at the Manor if only you observe the rules. And if you are conscientious—I truly hope you are conscientious, Nicholas; otherwise you shall have a tough time of it with me—if you are conscientious, I say, the rules should present no problem to you. They are few and simple. First, you must—”
Just then Nicholas felt his eyelids grow heavy.
Oh no! he thought. Oh no, oh no! And though he knew better, he rubbed his eyes desperately, as if he could press down the sleepiness, bottle it up with his fists. Hadn’t Mr. Collum already been annoyed? And now this? Falling asleep during his speech about the rules? Oh, he would positively resent Nicholas for this! But it could not be avoided. No matter how he rubbed at them, his eyelids only grew heavier; they might as well have been sandbags.
“Pardon me, sir,” Nicholas said, interrupting while he still could speak. “Mr. Collum? I’m extremely sorry, but I’m afraid I’m about to drop off….”
At this, Mr. Collum turned fully around in his seat, the right side of his scowling face weirdly lit by the glow from the dashboard instruments. In unmistakable annoyance he sputtered, “What do you mean, you’re about to—? But this is very bad timing, young man! Was I not—? And we are almost to the Manor! Are you entirely sure?”
But Nicholas did not—indeed, could not—reply. He scarcely even noticed that Mr. Collum had spoken. It was so strange, he thought dreamily, the way one side of Mr. Collum’s face was lit. In that glow his skin seemed greenish, like a goblin’s. Was he a goblin? Nicholas shivered at the thought. His eyelids drooped to a close, opened for an instant, closed again. Mr. Collum was asking him something, and this time Nicholas tried to answer, but it was too late, too late. He was off and dreaming.
When Nicholas awoke, he listened a while before opening his eyes, to determine whether his circumstances had changed. Doing so was an established habit with him and had often served him well. On this occasion, he could tell he was still slumped in the back seat of the Studebaker, though the automobile was no longer moving. He could hear the tick and ping of its cooling engine, the faint whisper of windblown drizzle against the windows. Somehow he knew he was alone in the automobile, but he felt sure he’d sensed another presence. Had his sleeping ears detected a shuffling of feet in the grass outside? A cough or murmur?
Nicholas opened one eye. Through the window he saw an older boy leaning against the Studebaker, his elbows on the hood, gazing off into the distance. The men must have gone ahead with their evening, he realized, and this unlucky orphan had been dispatched to show him inside. With a twinge of dread, Nicholas wondered how long the boy had been waiting in the damp and whether he was missing some enjoyable activity.
Opening his other eye, Nicholas followed the older boy’s gaze. To his surprise, he saw that the boy was looking across a wide lawn toward—well, toward nothing, really. Toward a lane, and the trees along either side of it, and general darkness. Nicholas turned his head. Here was the Manor, a two-story gray stone mansion that stretched out impressively in both directions. In a city it would have occupied half a block. There were enough windows to keep a glass factory in business for years. A few of them betrayed the faint, flickering reflections of interior candlelight. Most were dark.
The Studebaker was parked just at the bottom of the Manor’s stone porch steps. Why was the boy not waiting up on the porch, where it was dry? Nicholas leaned forward to get a better look at him. The many droplets of water on the windshield distorted the boy’s features somewhat, but he appeared to be about twelve, with an oval, freckled face and a dark brown crew cut. As Nicholas watched, the boy absently ran a hand over his bristly hair; a fine spray of water rose from it. He must have been out there awhile—getting wet on Nicholas’s account. Swell. Taking a deep breath, Nicholas opened the door, hauling his suitcase after him.
The boy quickly stepped over and extended his hand. “Nicholas, right? I’m John.”
John didn’t look happy, exactly, but neither did he seem resentful. Relieved, Nicholas was about to shake his hand when something made him hesitate. Now that he could see John’s face up close, he realized that what he’d thought were freckles were actually numerous pitted scars. It occurred to him that the other boy might have some contagious disease.
Evidently, John could tell what Nicholas was thinking. “They’re only old chicken pox scars,” he said. “I’m not contagious anymore—it’s been over a year. They just didn’t go away like they usually do.”
Nicholas could have kicked himself. If John hadn’t felt resentful before, he had reason to now. With an apologetic smile, Nicholas shook his hand. John had a strong grip—strong enough to make Nicholas wonder whether he was squeezing extra hard on purpose. But his expression was perfectly civil, and when Nicholas asked if he’d been waiting long, John shrugged good-naturedly and said it was no trouble.
“Mr. Collum sent me out a few minutes ago,” he said, gesturing for Nicholas to follow him up the porch steps. “He told me to show you inside when you woke up.”
Nicholas lugged his suitcase up the steps, at the top of which, on either side, towering gray columns rose into darkness, supporting a porch roof so high its features could scarcely be seen. The porch itself was almost as large as the cramped dormitory at Littleview that had been his home for more than a year. “Why weren’t you waiting up here, where it’s dry?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know.” John glanced around as if he, too, were seeing the porch for the first time. “I checked on you, and then I just stayed down there. The hood was warm and the mist was cool, and—well, I guess it felt more interesting. Also, I…” He paused, looking at Nicholas sidelong, then went on. “I heard about your condition. You might as well know that right off. Everyone says that’s why you’re getting a room to yourself. They say you have horrible nightmares, that you scream in your sleep. You weren’t screaming just now, though.”
“The naps aren’t so bad,” Nicholas said. “It’s at night that things get really fun. The director at Littleview couldn’t bear it anymore—I kept everyone awake and terrified the toddlers—so he worked it out with Mr. Collum that I could come here, since here I can sleep apart from everyone else. At Littleview there was no room for that.”
“Will you grow out of it?”
“No known cure,” Nicholas intoned in a deliberately gloomy voice. Then he grinned and waved a hand to dismiss the subject. “It’s fine, really; it just makes some people nervous. But what does this have to do with why you stayed down there?”
“What?” John looked surprised, perhaps even embarrassed. “Oh, I just thought that if you screamed or thrashed around, I ought to wake you right away. It seemed the decent thing.”
Nicholas glanced down at the Studebaker. From up here, its interior was almost impossible to see in the murky night. Had John really gone down to keep a closer eye on him—to wake him if he had a nightmare? It seemed unlikely. They didn’t even know each other. Then again, Nicholas could always tell when someone was lying, and John had sounded sincere. Nicholas turned back to study John’s face for a clue, but the other boy was already moving away.
“Like I said, it was more interesting, anyway,” John was saying, as if he didn’t want Nicholas to think him overly decent. “Come on, I’ll take you to your room.” He walked to the front entrance—a huge double oak door with a black iron latch—only to pause, twist his lips as if considering something, and move along without opening it.
At the end of the porch, John jumped down behind a row of azalea bushes that lined the front of the Manor. Nicholas climbed cautiously down after him, fearing for his shoes. He had been beaten once for tracking mud into an orphanage and did not care to repeat the experience. Fortunately, the narrow path was kept dry, more or less, by the azalea bushes and the Manor’s protruding eaves.
“Are we taking a shortcut?” Nicholas asked.
“Not really,” said John, creeping along the path. “But it occurred to me that the Spiders will be looking for you, so we’re going to take the old servants’ stairs. The side door should be open—that one’s rarely locked.”
Nicholas had stopped walking, a too-familiar dread rising in him. “Did you say the spiders are looking for me?”
Seeing that Nicholas had stopped, John turned and came back. “Right, I should explain. I didn’t mean actual spiders, of course, but a gang of bullies. A few of the older boys, quite nasty.”
Nicholas stood silently, weighing John’s tone. Was it possible he’d been joking? No, it was the truth, and Nicholas knew it. He had known it the moment John spoke. It was the truth, and no amount of wishing would make it otherwise.
“I see,” Nicholas said. And then he laughed. He couldn’t help it. His dread was raging at full force now, but at the same time how could he not laugh at this astonishingly quick arrival of misfortune, this instantaneous destruction of his hopes—hopes that had been so modest to begin with? It was far too absurd not to be funny. A horrible gang of bullies was already looking for him? Of course! Why not!
“That’s the spirit,” said John with an approving look. “They’re ridiculous, all right. The trick is avoiding them, and I can give you a few tips, as far as that goes. You just—Nicholas? Say, are you—?” He cried out in surprise, for Nicholas, who had abruptly stopped laughing (to listen, John had thought), now just as abruptly closed his eyes, dropped his suitcase, and pitched sideways into an azalea.
John managed to catch him under the shoulders and tried to help him upright. Nicholas was deadweight in his arms, however, and only with great effort did John keep both of them from toppling. Nicholas’s head lolled on his neck, his eyes remained closed, and for a terrible moment John thought that the poor boy had died. Then, with dawning amazement, he realized a less terrible but equally remarkable fact: Nicholas Benedict had fallen asleep, right in the middle of a laugh.
The first sensation Nicholas experienced when he awoke was discomfort in his knee. He seemed to be lying on the ground with one leg bent beneath him. He felt an azalea twig poking into his ear, and soft earth under his fingertips. His shoulder blade pressed into a stone. And—as he came to realize what had happened—he felt a rising heat in his cheeks.
It was not unfamiliar, this shame that arrived after collapsing, helpless, in the presence of others. Nicholas had never gotten used to it, had never been able to quash it. Worse, this time it was instantly followed by an electric surge of dismay. His secret was already in jeopardy, and he had only just arrived!
Nicholas steadied his breathing, trying to calm himself and think what to do. Unfortunately, John must have been watching him closely, for though the change in his breathing was subtle, the older boy immediately whispered, “Hey! Are you awake? Can you hear me?”
Nicholas opened one eye. John’s concerned face hovered over him. “Don’t you have better things to do than watch over the new kid?” he asked, as casually as he might have asked the time.
John did not smile—he had yet to do so even once—but he did seem relieved. Shrugging his shoulders every bit as casually, he replied, “It isn’t every day I get to watch someone sleep in the shrubberies.”
“Is that so?” Nicholas said breezily. “Where I come from it’s quite common.” He straightened out his tingling leg and sat up.
“So, does this always happen when you get excited?” John asked, and it was all Nicholas could do not to let the surprise—surprise and panic—show on his face. He knew his eyes had widened, and quickly he rubbed at them as if he were still just trying to wake up properly. Meanwhile John continued. “You went down right in the middle of a laugh. I’ve never seen anything like it. You have a funny laugh, by the way. Sounds like someone tapping out Morse code. No offense. I mean, it’s a fine laugh. I’ve just never heard one like it before.”
Nicholas cleared his throat, trying to gather his wits. John was clearly sharper than most. “Sorry, I’m still a bit groggy. The fact is, I don’t think I’ve really heard anything you’ve been saying.”
“Oh!” John reached down and helped Nicholas to his feet. “I only asked whether laughing always does that to you.”
“Laughing?” said Nicholas. He brushed off his pants, his mind racing. Even if John accepted a made-up explanation, he might still tell others about his original suspicion. How long would it be until someone tested that theory to see if he’d been right?
“Yes, laughing,” John said, somewhat insistently now. “You were standing there laughing, and I was trying to tell you something, and then you just closed your eyes and fell over. Has that never happened before?”
There was no help for it, Nicholas thought. His best chance was to gamble on the truth, or at least some version of it. “Well, I believe it has happened once or twice. But say, John, I don’t suppose we could keep this between us? I can find some way to pay you back. Whatever you like.”
John’s eyebrows rose in surprise, then just as quickly drew together into a frown. He was quiet for several seconds. He seemed to be working something out in his mind. Nicholas worried he was calculating a particularly hefty bribe.
“Tell me something,” John said finally, looking Nicholas in the eye. “You understood what I was saying right away, didn’t you? You only pretended not to. Why did you do that?”
Nicholas sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’ve had some bad experiences.”
John studied him for some time, considering this. Then he shoved his hands into his pockets, and his gaze drifted upward, as if now he were studying the eaves. At length he muttered, as if to himself, “I’ll bet. I hadn’t even thought of that.” He looked back at Nicholas. “All right, Nick—can I call you Nick?—your secret’s safe with me. And forget that business about paying me back. I’m not a creep, you know.”
Once again Nicholas was slow to reply. He was grateful, but also confused. He’d had precious little experience with generous behavior. “Sure,” he said after an awkward pause, then hurriedly added, “I mean ‘sure, you can call me Nick,’ not ‘sure, you’re not a creep.’ Because I’m sure you aren’t. A creep, I mean.”
John narrowed his eyes. “I’m glad, I think. All set, then? Ready to sneak in?”
Nicholas picked up his suitcase. “All set.”
John started off again toward the corner of the Manor. “The thing about this place, Nick, is that you’re fine as long as there’s a grownup around. Really. The staff don’t put up with any nonsense, and they give out harsh punishments. So the Spiders won’t try anything unless they get you away from the adults. You can usually avoid that if you’re careful, but tonight they know I’m supposed to take you upstairs, so they might be lying in wait for you somewhere on the way—somewhere out of sight of the staff.”
“What do they want with me, anyway?” Nicholas asked. “They don’t even know me.”
“They want to ‘initiate’ you. It isn’t personal. They initiated me, too, when I got here last year. They say it’s a tradition, but that’s just an excuse. People like the Spiders don’t need traditions to do what they do.”
Nicholas was about to ask what the initiation involved, when they reached the corner. John put a finger to his lips and peered around. He beckoned Nicholas to follow him. They tiptoed into a side yard, where in the prevailing gloom Nicholas made out the shapes of a well, a small raised garden, and a shed. Beyond these he saw nothing but darkness. For such an impressive mansion, the Manor sorely lacked for good lighting. Only a single, second-story window on this side offered the faintest glimmer of candlelight.
John led him through the side door and eased it closed behind them. They stood in a dim passage, the sole source of illumination being a band of light shining from beneath a door to their left. (“Mr. Pileus’s bedroom,” John whispered.) Voices sounded in other parts of the Manor, drifting down passageways and over transoms. Agitated conversations, occasional spurts of laughter, flurries of footsteps.
John whispered for Nicholas to tread softly and step only where he stepped. Presumably this was to avoid creaking floorboards, though with all the exaggerated caution they were taking, Nicholas could not help but imagine trip wires and land mines. He took his first stealthy step, all his senses on high alert—and in this way, skulking like a thief, Nicholas entered his new home.
At the end of the passage, the boys slipped through a door to the old servants’ stairs. The stairway was cramped and dusty, and it was pitch black until John turned the key in a wall lamp, illuminating the wooden steps and a closed door at the top. “Got it?” he whispered. He switched the light off again, and in darkness they began to climb.
“Free time will be over soon,” John said, still speaking softly. “Everyone will have to report to the dormitories for bed, so you just need to steer clear of the Spiders until then. I suppose you could hide behind the boxes in your room if it came to that.”
“There are boxes in my room?”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” John cautioned. “They aren’t presents or anything. In the old days your room was a guest room, but it’s used for storage now. You have a cot, though—you don’t have to actually sleep in a box. That’s something, right?”
At the top of the stairs, Nicholas spied a tiny circle of dim light that seemed to hover in the blackness. He knew this was the keyhole in the door, and when it disappeared, he knew John had put his eye to it. John opened the door a crack and listened, then opened it further and looked out. “I don’t see anyone,” he whispered, “but we’ll keep quiet all the same.”
The boys crept out into a short and terribly gloomy passage. Nicholas’s eye was drawn to the only discernible light; some paces to the left, where this passage ended at the intersection of another one, a sickly yellow candle burned in a wall sconce. Beneath the sconce stood an antique wooden bureau, atop which a bowl had been set to catch the steady trickle of leaking melted wax. In the dim candlelight, Nicholas took in his surroundings: the faded pattern in the carpet running along the wooden floor; the electric light fixture, missing its bulbs, that hung directly overhead; and the door, just opposite the servants’ stairs, that John was attempting to open—the door, Nicholas realized in horror, to his room.
“Couldn’t they have picked a spookier place?” he whispered. “If I didn’t have nightmares already, I’m fairly certain this atmosphere would induce them.”
John gave Nicholas a quizzical look. “How old did you say you were, Nick? You seem, I don’t know, kind of wordy for a kid your size.”
“I’m nine,” Nicholas replied, and to be comical he drew himself up to full height, as if his height were most impressive. In fact, as he well knew, he was on the small side even for a nine-year-old.
“Nine,” John repeated, and he shook his head. “You don’t sound it. I’m twelve, you know, and I’m ‘fairly certain’ I’ve never heard a kid use the word ‘induce.’ ” (He said all this in a teasing tone, not harsh at all, but Nicholas nonetheless reminded himself to be careful; others could be less forgiving.) “Anyway, this door’s locked. I’ll have to go and find Mr. Collum. You’d better stay here. There might be Spiders posted along the way.”
Nicholas tried not to appear alarmed. “But if they see you, won’t they realize I’m up here?”
“The Spiders aren’t especially good at realizing things,” John said wryly. “But if they see me, I’ll tell them I was just checking on your room—Mr. Collum often has me do errands like that—and that you’re still outside asleep. They won’t risk sneaking outside. Too many things could go wrong.”
Nicholas also saw too many things that could go wrong with John’s plan, but he decided not to mention them. He didn’t want to appear frightened to wait up here by himself (even though he was). Besides, he wanted to give John the benefit of the doubt. “Perfect, I’ll wait here, then.” He set down his suitcase, put his hands on his hips, and made a show of glancing around with a look of satisfaction. “I like it here, anyway. It’s homey.”
“I’ll be as quick as I can,” John said. “You just sit tight and keep your ears open. If you hear someone coming, better duck into the stairway until you know who it is. It can’t hurt to be careful.” He was already hurrying away.
“Wait!” Nicholas called, whispering as loudly as he dared. John stopped and looked back. “I… I wanted to thank you. You’re going to a lot of trouble for someone you don’t know.”
Perhaps it was the candlelight striking him from a new angle, but at these words John’s face seemed to change—his features seemed almost contorted—and when he spoke, his voice sounded tight and forced, as if he were upset. “Don’t thank me, Nick.” He made a broad, vague, irritated gesture. “This—all this business—it shouldn’t be like this. It shouldn’t…” He sighed, and his expression appeared to relax. “Forget it. Just don’t thank me, Nick. All right? There’s no need to thank me.”
“Sir, yes, sir!” said Nicholas. He straightened like a soldier and saluted. “No thanks, then, Captain. No thanks it is!”
John’s eyes narrowed. For a moment he looked as if he might smile. “You’re a fresh one, Nick,” he said at last.
After John had gone, Nicholas surveyed the area near his room. Several paces to the right of the stairway door, the passage ended at a curtainless window overlooking the side yard. Not that Nicholas could actually see the yard (the glass reflected his tense face and the candlelit passage behind him, and outside all was blackness), but it was easy enough for him to deduce. He didn’t have to think about it. Nicholas was the sort of person who could wander blindfolded for hours and never lose his direction. The side yard lay to the east of the Manor, and Nicholas knew he was facing east, so this had to be the faintly glimmering window he had seen from below.
Nicholas turned and tiptoed to the intersection (the candle corner, was how he thought of it), where the wax dripping into the bowl made a ticking sound as regular as a clock. Indeed, he had been automatically keeping track of the drips since John left. One hundred eighty-seven and counting—approximately three minutes. Nicholas peered to the left, in the direction John had taken. This south-running passage extended past a few closed doors toward the front of the house, where it turned to the right, or west.
Nicholas swiveled his eyes (he was trying to keep quiet by not moving very much) to peer along the passage to the north. It ran a great deal farther in that direction, perhaps even to the very back of the Manor, though it was altogether too dark to tell. In the near distance Nicholas could make out another candle corner, with an identical bowl set upon an identical bureau, but the sconce there was empty.
From what Nicholas could see—or, more to the point, not see—the upstairs seemed a horribly gloomy place. He tiptoed back to the door of his room, not a little gloomy himself. Was there really to be no one on this entire abandoned floor but him? He bent to peer through the keyhole. Nothing but darkness. He wondered what sort of bed he had. At Littleview he had slept on blankets on the floor. That had been a fortunate arrangement, actually; though his terrifying dreams had often made him flail and thrash, they could never send him tumbling out of bed. He’d probably been spared many nasty bruises.
Nicholas did not want to imagine how it would be to awaken from a nightmare in this dark and isolated corner, with the feeling—that much-too-familiar feeling—that some hideous creature crouched in the shadows of his room, so instead he turned his attention to the candle in the sconce, which had just made a sputtering sound. He looked up in time to see its flame tilt sideways, then straighten again.
As if it had been caught in a draft, he thought.
Nicholas was instantly on guard. What had caused that draft? Was it simply a gust of wind slipping through cracks in the old stone walls, or had someone opened a door nearby? He heard no voices or footsteps, but this was not reassuring. If John knew where to step to avoid creaking floorboards, the Spiders might know as well. Quickly he slipped onto the servants’ stairs and eased the door closed.
A long minute passed, during which all Nicholas heard was his heartbeat. In his haste he had left his suitcase behind—a mistake, but he couldn’t risk retrieving it now. He pictured that tilted candle flame. There might have been other causes, he knew; his mind flashed over several. Still, he felt uneasy. He could no longer hear the dripping of the candle wax, but in the back of his mind he had kept up the count. Two minutes passed, then three.
Nicholas had almost decided it was a false alarm, when he heard whispers in the passage. They were startlingly close to where he crouched on the dark stairs. Indeed, if the door had not been there, he could have reached out and grabbed the whisperers. Or vice versa. Through the keyhole he caught a glimpse of a leather belt cinched carelessly about its owner’s waist—two frayed denim loops had been missed entirely—and then a large, scuffed metal belt buckle rotated into view. The person had turned toward the door. A hand passed slowly across the keyhole view, reaching for the doorknob.
There was nothing for it—he could hardly leap away—and so Nicholas swung the door open and sprang out of the stairway with a grin. “There you are!” he cried, beaming at three startled boys in the passage. They were giants compared to Nicholas—eleven or twelve years old, and all of them big for their age. All had crew cuts like John’s. The one with the belt buckle, who was also the tallest, had jumped back to avoid being struck by the opening door. He was holding Nicholas’s suitcase.
“I heard you were looking for me,” Nicholas said, grinning. “You are the Spiders, aren’t you? I’ve heard great things about you already! Great things!”
The belt buckle boy was evidently the leader, for the other two were looking back and forth between him and Nicholas, wondering what would come next. But the belt buckle boy was staring at Nicholas in astonishment, as if this newcomer had just claimed to be a talking squirrel and shown his tail to prove it. The boy licked his lips, which were quite chapped, and after a long, considered pause, he said, “What?”
“I’m excited about initiation,” Nicholas said, lowering his voice confidentially, as if they might be overheard. “I love secrets! But I’m worried Mr. Collum will stop us. What should we do?”
“Do?” said the belt buckle boy. He glanced around at the others, who were clearly confused. One of them—a pale, lanky boy with a pinched expression, as if he’d just eaten something bitter—was mumbling the words that Nicholas had spoken. He seemed to be trying to get at their meaning by saying them himself.
“Yes, do!” Nicholas said, clasping his hands together. “I’ve never had an initiation before. It’s a kind of welcoming party, right? I don’t want to miss it, but Mr. Collum will be here any second!”
“So you think…” said the belt buckle boy, with a slowly spreading grin that showed he understood the situation now—or thought he did, anyway. He chuckled, then tried to mask it with a cough. “Well, little buddy, that won’t be a problem, see, because we’re headed to the bathroom. That’s where we do it. Come on, we’ll show you. It’s just around the corner.” He winked at the other boys, who were now exchanging knowing looks. They both spoke up in false-friendly tones, encouraging Nicholas to join them.
Nicholas was surprised by their winks and insincere manner—even a toddler would have been suspicious, he thought—but of course he pretended he hadn’t noticed. “The bathroom? But Mr. Collum is in the bathroom—that’s where he’s coming from!”
Once again the Spiders looked stunned.
The pale, lanky boy said, “The bathroom around the corner? Are you sure?”
“But we just saw him in his office talking to John Cole!” put in the third boy, a handsome, muscular brute who seemed already to have a mustache, or at least the shadowy beginnings of one. “How did he get up here so fast? We’re fixed good if he catches us, Moray!” He looked anxiously to the belt buckle boy.
“Shut up, both of you, and let me think!” Moray hissed, and the features of his face—round cheeks, dark, round eyes, a smallish snub nose—all bunched together into a circle of concentration so tiny that a coffee cup might have covered them entirely. He licked his chapped lips again. “I don’t see how old Collum could have got past us—”
“He came up these stairs,” Nicholas interjected, “and then he told me to go back down and turn off the light while he paid a visit to the bathroom. He seemed to be in an awful hurry—I think it was an emergency.”
“These stairs?” Moray said. Nicholas watched him working it out in his mind. “The servants’ stairs?”
“That sounds like Collum, all right,” said the handsome, muscular boy. “Turning off the light, I mean.”
“So he really could be here any second?” said the lanky boy. His tone was worried now, but he still looked simply peevish, as if he had mothballs in his mouth.
“That’s what he said, isn’t it?” whispered the muscular one, shooting the peevish one a contemptuous look. The two of them fell at once into a heated, whispered argument, during which Nicholas learned that the muscular boy was called Breaker, and the other was called Iggy.
Pretending to be alarmed, Nicholas urgently laid his finger against his lips, signaling them to be quiet. With a start, they remembered why they were arguing, and fell silent, glancing apprehensively toward the candle corner. Moray, meanwhile, had screwed his face up tight again, presumably trying extra hard to think.
“I know!” Nicholas said, softly snapping his fingers. “You can sneak down these stairs, and we’ll do the initiation tomorrow. Should I bring cookies? I was given some when I left the last place. They’re right in here!” He took the suitcase from Moray, who released it without thinking (no doubt he was unused to having things snatched from him), and stepped aside to let them pass. “Don’t worry, I won’t say a word to Mr. Collum. Just tell me where to meet you!”
Moray hesitated, perhaps wondering what kind of cookies Nicholas had. Then he nodded. “Bathroom around the corner. Right after breakfast. We’ll be waiting for you.”
“Swell!” Nicholas said, flashing an eager grin. “Oh, that’s swell of you, Moray! Thank you!”
Moray regarded him with affection, rather as a weasel might look upon an unguarded chicken. “Don’t mention it. Oh, and don’t mention it to anyone else, either. Not a word about initiation to anyone, got it? You don’t want to ruin the surprise.”
Nicholas looked horrified. “Oh no! That’s the last thing I’d do!”
“Good man,” Moray said, patting Nicholas’s shoulder. “And be sure to bring those cookies.”
Nicholas put his hand over his heart. “I will, Moray! You can count on me! Good night, Moray! Good night, fellows!”
Moray smirked and hurried down the stairs, followed by the other Spiders, looking equally smug. “Did you see the honker on that kid?” whispered Breaker when they were only halfway down the stairs.
Nicholas heard him quite plainly, along with Iggy’s snickering reply: “How could I have missed that? It looked like something out of a root cellar!”
All three were chuckling when Nicholas abruptly closed the door, shutting them into blackness. He heard them stumbling and cursing, which gave him some small satisfaction. He opened the door a crack and whispered down into the darkness, “Sorry! I heard someone coming!” then quickly closed it again. Moments later he heard the downstairs door rattle open and bang shut. The Spiders were much less cautious now that they weren’t sneaking up on him.
Nicholas sank to the floor, his heart hammering like a woodpecker against his rib cage. It seemed a miracle that he hadn’t gone to sleep and fallen at the bullies’ feet. That was something, anyway. And he had managed not to get his head dunked in a toilet (he was sure that was what initiation involved), so all in all it was a successful escape—perhaps even one of his best.
But Nicholas had made things far worse for himself in the long run, and he knew it. There is no fury greater than one born of humiliation, and when Nicholas didn’t show up the next morning, the Spiders would realize that he had indeed humiliated them. A nine-year-old duping them so easily? With no warning, no preparation at all? Oh yes, he had made the Spiders look like fools, and they would understand that all too soon. If it hadn’t been personal before, it most certainly would be now. The bullies would do everything in their power to get him back. They would do their worst—and from the look of them, their worst would be terrible indeed.
Yet what else could Nicholas have done? Let them humiliate him? No, that never had been an option. Nicholas simply didn’t have it in him to give in to bullies. He never had. If they wanted to humiliate him, they were going to have to work for it.
With a groan, Nicholas leaned back against the stairway door. This whole situation felt sadly familiar. But the Spiders were much bigger than any bullies he’d ever known, and this place was so large that there had to be countless shadowy corners in which to trap unsuspecting victims. Like actual spiders, he thought. He drew up his knees and rested his chin on them. Had he really been thinking, back at the train station, that this new place could hardly be worse than the last?
So much for that.
The Spiders had not been gone long (seventy-one drips of wax) when the candle flame sputtered violently and leaned sideways again. Nicholas sprang to his feet and put his hand on the doorknob. Perhaps they were coming back—perhaps they had already realized they’d been suckered. Then came the distant creak of a floorboard, followed by brisk, purposeful, heavy footsteps on carpet—a man’s footsteps—and Nicholas knew it was Mr. Collum.
Nicholas also sensed that Mr. Collum was alone, a fact confirmed when the director rounded the candle corner. He looked slightly less official than before, having removed his suit coat, necktie, and hat, but he still had his ledger and still stood straight as a post. Absent his hat, Mr. Collum’s hair proved to be black, oiled, and meticulously combed, with a severe part down the middle that made Nicholas think of a path through a thicket. He was carrying a small lantern, its flame turned so low it was scarcely visible.
“So you are still awake,” said Mr. Collum snappishly. “After what happened on our way here, I worried I would make the climb only to find you slumbering again.”
Nicholas bowed. “Perfectly awake, Mr. Collum, and happy not to have inconvenienced you again.” He kept every trace of sarcasm out of his tone, but Mr. Collum searched his face nonetheless. Nicholas returned the gaze with a look of blank sincerity.
“As for that,” Mr. Collum said, “it’s inconvenient enough with you awake.” Tucking the ledger under his arm, he reached into a trouser pocket and drew out a length of black ribbon tied to an antique-looking key. It would seem a simple enough procedure; yet he almost dropped the ledger, and then the lantern, and then was obliged to take the key ribbon in his teeth as he got them both resituated (he seemed unwilling to set anything down or to ask Nicholas for help), and in general gave the impression of a man needing more hands than he possessed.
“I had intended to finish explaining the rules,” Mr. Collum said, speaking through his clenched teeth as he shifted his things, “but that will have to wait. It’s bedtime now, and you must follow your routine, the same as everyone. Here we are,” he said, unlocking the door at last.
Mr. Collum turned up the flame in his lantern, revealing a room that would have been comfortably spacious had it not been full of boxes. To the right, against the east wall, was a narrow strip of space in which a cot had been placed. Overhead dangled an ornate light fixture without bulbs. There appeared to be no windows, either, which seemed odd for a former guest room in a mansion. Then Nicholas detected a square patch of stone, just above the cot, that was a slightly different shade of gray from the rest of the wall. A window there would have looked onto the side yard.
“I had Mr. Pileus close that in this afternoon,” said Mr. Collum when Nicholas walked over to inspect the square patch. “Do not touch it. The mortar may be damp yet.”
Nicholas stared wistfully at the wall. To think he had almost had a window! “But what was the matter with it?”
“With the window?” Mr. Collum said. “Nothing at all. It was an ordinary window. But your peculiar sleeping arrangements call for unusual measures, Nicholas. Naturally, we cannot leave you unsupervised without taking precautions. A boy your age is much tempted to mischief. Thus it occurred to me this morning that we must remove the window. We can’t have you sneaking out at night, perhaps falling and breaking your neck in the process. And obviously we shall keep your door locked.”
“Locked?” Nicholas spun to face him, aghast. “I’m to be locked into this room, alone, every night?”
“There’s no help for it,” Mr. Collum said briskly. “Assigning you a personal chaperone would be impossible—we simply haven’t the staff. Come now!” he said when Nicholas began taking deep breaths to calm himself. “Buck up! It isn’t as bad as all that.” He gestured into the corner, where a once-elegant braided cloth rope hung from the ceiling. “If you have an emergency—I mean a true emergency, Nicholas, not just a nightmare or a little thirst—you may tug on that rope. A bell will sound below in the old butler’s room, where Mr. Pileus sleeps, and he will come up to check on you.”
“I see, sir,” Nicholas said, recovering enough to sound polite. “I do hate to bother Mr. Pileus, though. Perhaps we could try it awhile with the door unlocked? I’m not the least bit interested in mischief, I can promise you.” He rounded his eyes, dipped his chin, and otherwise did his best to look unmischievous.
Mr. Collum sighed. “Out of the question, I’m afraid, Nicholas. One must always start strictly. In time I might consider easing restrictions, but this will depend upon your behavior. If you were John Cole, for instance, I would probably grant your request. In fact, you would do well to model yourself after John—makes himself useful, excellent deportment, never a nuisance. Indeed, much of the time one would not even know he’s here.” Mr. Collum said this last part with special emphasis, as if there were no greater virtue in a child than appearing to be absent.
Nicholas lowered his eyes. He could see it was pointless to argue further. You have to find another way to fix this, he told himself, and his mind went probing frantically in every direction, searching for a solution.
“You may keep your suitcase beneath the cot,” Mr. Collum was saying. “Come along now and wash up in the bathroom. Do you have pajamas? A toothbrush and paste?”
“Yes, sir,” Nicholas replied. He knelt to his suitcase, his mind still racing. “Will I have a lamp, Mr. Collum?”
Mr. Collum seemed not to have considered this. He was slow to reply, and when he did so, his tone was reluctant. “You may have a candle. Take one from that box,” he said, pointing, “and I shall light it before I leave you.”
Nicholas hurried to the box in relief. He rifled through the candles inside, looking for the biggest one. And all the time his mind was working, working.
Out in the passage again, Mr. Collum repeated his awkward ritual, rearranging the things in his hands and under his arms in order to bring out his key and lock the door.
Nicholas wondered at this. “Aren’t we coming right back, Mr. Collum?”
Mr. Collum’s cheeks flushed, and he looked at Nicholas disapprovingly. “You ask far too many questions, young man. Yes, we’re coming back. But I keep things properly secured. My predecessor was a scoundrel. I am a responsible businessman. Your bedroom also happens to be a storage room, and as such it is kept locked at all times. Now follow me, and no more questions. It has been an insufferably long day, and I am much too weary. Tomorrow you will be shown about and told all you need to know.”
Mr. Collum did seem weary. In fact, Nicholas suspected that he was so tired he had locked the door without thinking, then covered up his mistake with that business about keeping things secured. All the briskness had gone out of him—even his reprimand had lacked force—and he yawned several times as he led the way to the bathroom.
They turned left at the candle corner, then right at the end of the south-running passage. In the distance a half-open doorway revealed a sort of gallery, a lofty space in which Nicholas spied the upper railing of a grand staircase, its polished wood reflecting the light of an unseen candle. But they stopped well short of the gallery, and Mr. Collum gestured with his ledger to a door on the right.
“Be quick,” said Mr. Collum through a yawn. He did not offer the use of his lantern.
Nicholas hurried into the bathroom, wondering what he was to do about light. As it happened, the bathroom had a wall lamp with an actual bulb in it. He turned it on (half expecting Mr. Collum to scold him), then closed the door and bent to the keyhole. He watched Mr. Collum lean back against the wall and shut his eyes.
Nicholas stared at Mr. Collum, not out of anger or bitterness but because he was concentrating. Now that he was alone, he could turn his full attention to his problem. His mind began reeling in its many strands of thought like so many fishing lines, checking each hook for solutions. He stared at the trouser pocket in which Mr. Collum carried the key to his room. Then he straightened and stared intently at the keyhole in the bathroom door. Then he closed his eyes and stared at every detail his mind had registered since he arrived.
And then he had his answer.
Hiding his toothbrush and toothpaste inside his shirt, Nicholas swung the door open again, talking fast: “I’m so sorry, Mr. Collum, but I seem to have left my toothbrush and toothpaste in the bedroom! I must have set them down when I took the candle from the box, and forgot to pick them up again!”
Mr. Collum opened his eyes, looking bewildered. “You didn’t—but didn’t I see—why, what on earth were you thinking, Nicholas? This is a bad start,” he said, his voice growing angrier, “a very bad start indeed!”
“I really am sorry, Mr. Collum!” Nicholas said, and pressed on quickly. “I’ll just dash back for them! You needn’t budge! I’ll be quick as a wink!” He held out his hand for the key, as urgently as he could without seeming demanding, and composed his face into an expression of anxious embarrassment.
Mr. Collum scowled and began shifting his things. “Forty-five seconds,” he said. “One second longer and you’ll regret it. Do you understand me, Nicholas?” He held out the key on its black ribbon.
“Absolutely, sir!” Nicholas cried, snatching the key. “Forty-five seconds it is!”
He flew back the way they had come, but he did not go straight to his room. Instead, he ran past the first candle corner and on to the one he’d spotted farther down, the dark one with the empty sconce and the unused bowl. Grabbing that bowl, he ran back to the first candle corner and switched it with the other bowl—the one containing a fresh layer of warm, soft wax. This one he carried to his room. He was perspiring now, his fingers clammy against the key as he shoved it into the lock.
In the privacy of his room, Nicholas knelt over the bowl. He pressed the key into the cooling wax. Slowly and carefully, he tugged it out again by the ribbon, then buffed it with his shirt. He tucked the key into his pocket, hid the bowl behind a stack of boxes, and hurried out again.
“Forty-three seconds,” Mr. Collum said when Nicholas came running up. He put away his pocket watch almost regretfully, but at least he hadn’t lied. (Nicholas knew the time was accurate, for he’d been counting the seconds in his head.)
“Thanks for your patience, Mr. Collum,” said Nicholas, and he handed over the key.
Soon afterward Nicholas stood in his bedroom alone, listening, as the same key locked him in for the night. Mr. Collum had left him with his solitary flickering candle, along with a warning to use it safely, and had informed Nicholas that Mrs. Brindle, the housekeeper, would be up early in the morning to fetch him. Mr. Collum had neglected to leave any matches should the candle need to be lit again later, but Nicholas had chosen not to mention this. Instead, he had hurriedly expressed his gratitude, promised to go to sleep at once, and bidden the director a good night.
Nicholas put his ear against the door and listened to Mr. Collum tramp away. Then he reached inside his pajama top and took out the lightbulb he’d removed from the bathroom lamp. It was still warm to the touch. Nicholas smiled and tossed it onto his cot. Later he would climb a stack of boxes and screw the bulb into the light fixture. For now, he eagerly carried his candle over to where he had hidden the bowl, and with a rush of relief and delight, he inspected the result of his efforts: The key had left a perfect impression in the wax. So he had his mold, and tomorrow, according to Mr. Collum, he had metalwork.
By tomorrow night, then, Nicholas would have his own key.
The orphanage housekeeper, a widow named Mrs. Brindle, had a variety of minor ailments that troubled her. Chief among them was an itchy eye, at which she was always rubbing furiously with one knuckle, but she also suffered from aches and pains that migrated, unpredictably, from one part of her body to another. No sooner would she learn to favor one elbow or knee—adjusting her movements, applying hot-water bottles and ointments—than its pain would disappear and pop up elsewhere. And so she would cry out or groan whenever she moved, not because the pain was unbearable but because it always surprised her. This morning, for instance, it had been her shoulder that bothered her when she rose from bed; yet when she dropped her ring of keys trying to unlock Nicholas’s door and bent to retrieve it, the pain sneaked down to her back.
“You slippery devil!” Mrs. Brindle snarled. (Over the years she had come to think of this traveling pain as an impish spirit, like a poltergeist that haunted muscles and bones rather than cupboards and closets.) “Can you not sit still for one morning? Why not move along to someone else entirely? A larger body! Wouldn’t that be nice? You’d have more room to work your mischief, you wicked little beast!” And she said more things along this line, which had long been her habit, as she unlocked the door and pushed it open.
Nicholas, however, being unfamiliar with Mrs. Brindle’s angry speeches, had retreated to the far side of the pitch-black room and was in a fair state of alarm. He’d been fully dressed for hours, just in case, but had been awake for only a minute. It had been a long night, and what little sleep he had gotten had been haunted, as it so frequently was, by hideous nightmares, terrible visions so powerful and vivid they seemed not just real but more than real, the way things often do when a person is frightened. Sometimes, in fact, they were even worse than nightmares—sometimes they were hallucinations. And the worst of these, which had visited Nicholas many a night, was a horrifying female creature who threatened to smother him.
“Why, whatever is the matter with you?” Mrs. Brindle demanded when she saw Nicholas cowering in the corner. She turned up the flame in her lamp and held it forward, the better to see him.
The increased light made Mrs. Brindle easier to see as well, and Nicholas quickly regained his composure. She was not the awful creature from his hallucination but a stooped woman with wiry gray hair and a runny eye. Through the door she had sounded furious, but in person she seemed merely exasperated. And at any rate, Nicholas could tell now that he was truly awake. It was morning. The horrors had passed.
“Nothing at all is the matter, ma’am!” Nicholas exclaimed, and he offered Mrs. Brindle a sweeping bow. “I was only startled by your sudden entrance. Nicholas Benedict, ma’am. Very pleased to meet you.”
“What?” said Mrs. Brindle, rubbing her eye. “How old are you? I was told you were nine.”
Excerpted from The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Stewart, Trenton Lee Copyright © 2012 by Stewart, Trenton Lee. Excerpted by permission.
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