A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle #1)(10) by Libba Bray

"And yet she doesn't die when she leaves the tower. She dies on the river. Interesting, isn't it? Does anyone else have any thoughts? Miss Doyle?"

I'm startled to hear my own name. My mouth goes dry instantly. I furrow my brow and stare intently at the picture, waiting for an answer to announce itself. I can't think of a blessed thing to say.

"Please do not strain yourself, Miss Doyle. I won't have my girls going cross-eyed in the name of art."

There's a burst of tittering. I know I should be embarrassed, but mostly, I am relieved not to have to make up an answer I don't have. I retreat inside myself again.

Miss Moore walks around the room, past a long table holding partially painted canvases, tubs of oil paints, stacks of watercolors, and tin cups full of paintbrushes with bristles like straw. In the corner, there's a painting propped on an easel. It's a nature study of trees and lawn and a steeple, a scene we can see echoed through the bank of windows in front of us. "I think that the lady dies not because she leaves the tower for the outside world, but because she lets herself float through that world, pulled by the current after a dream."

It is quiet for a moment, nothing but the sound of feet shuffling under desks, Ann's nails drumming softly on the wood as if it were an imaginary piano.

"Do you mean she should have paddled?" Cecily asks.

Miss Moore laughs. "In a manner of speaking, yes."

Ann stops drumming. "But it wouldn't matter whether she paddled or not. She's cursed. No matter what she does, she'll die."

"And she'll die if she stays in the tower, too. Perhaps not for a long time, but she will die. We all will," Miss Moore says softly. Ann can't let it go. "But she has no choice. She can't win. They won't let her!" She leans forward in her seat, nearly out of it, and I understand, we all do, that she's no longer talking about the lady in the picture.

"Good heavens, Ann, it's just a silly poem," Felicity gibes, rolling her eyes. The acolytes catch on and add their own cruel whispers.

"Shhh, that's enough," Miss Moore admonishes. "Yes, Ann, it's only a poem. Only a picture."

Pippa is suddenly agitated. "But people can be cursed, can't they? They could have something, an affliction, that's beyond their control. Couldn't they?"

My breath catches in my throat. A tingle starts in my fingertips. No. I won't be pulled under. Begone .

"We all have our challenges to bear, Miss Cross. I suppose it's all in how we shoulder them," Miss Moore says gently.

"Do you believe in curses, Miss Moore?" Felicity asks. It seems a dare.

I am empty. A void. I feel nothing, nothing, nothing. Mary Dowd or whoever you are, please, please go away.

Miss Moore searches the wall behind us as if the answer might be hiding there among her pastel watercolor still lifes. Red, ripe apples. Succulent grapes. Light-dappled oranges. All of them slowly rotting in a bowl. "I believe" She trails off. She seems lost. A breeze blows through the open windows, overturning a cup of brushes. The tingling in my fingers stops. I am safe for now. The breath I've been holding whooshes out in a rush.

Miss Moore rights the brushes."! believe that this week we shall take a walk through the woods and explore the old caves, where there are some truly astonishing primitive drawings. They can tell you far more about art than I can."

The class erupts in cheers. A chance to get out of the classroom is joyous news indeed, a sign that we have more privileges than the younger classes. But I've got a sense of unease, remembering my own trip to the caves and the diary of Mary Dowd still in the back of my wardobe.

"Well, it's far too beautiful a day to be stuck here in this classroom discussing doomed damsels in boats. You may start your free period early, and if anyone asks, you are merely observing the outside world for artistic inspiration. As for this," she says, scrutinizing her sketch, "it needs something."

With a flourish, Miss Moore draws a neat mustache on the Lady of Shallot. "God is in the details," she says.

Except for Cecily, who strikes me more and more as a secret goody-goody, we're giggling over her boldness, happy to be naughty with her. Miss Moore's face comes to life with a smile, and my unease slips away. When I rush full-speed into my room to retrieve Mary Dowd's diary, I run headlong into the back of Brigid, who is supervising the training of a new upstairs maid.

"I'm terribly sorry," I sputter with as much dignity as I can, considering that I'm flat on the floor with my skirts up to my knees. Running into the broad Brigid is a bit like flinging myself into the side of a ship. There's a ringing in my head and I fear I may go deaf from the crushing force of her.

"Sorry? Aye, and you should be," Brigid says, yanking me to my feet and straightening my hem to a modest level. The new maid turns away, but I can see her slender shoulders bobbing from her stifled laughter.

I start to thank Brigid for helping me to my feet, but she's only just begun her tirade.

"Carrying on in that way, galloping like a stallion about to meet the gelder's knife! Now, I ask you, is that any way for a proper lady to conduct 'erself? Hmm? Now wot would Missus Nightwing say if she was to see you makin' such a spectacle o' yerself?"

"I am sorry." I look down at my feet, hoping this passes for contrition.

Brigid makes a clucking sound. "I'm glad you're sorry, then. Wots got you in such a rush, then, hmmm? Mind you tell old Brigid the truth. After twenty-some-odd years 'ere I've got keen eyes, I do."

"I forgot my book," I say, stepping quickly to my wardrobe. I grab my cape and slip the diary inside.

"All that runnin' about, nearly killin' folk for a book," Brigid grumbles, as if it were she and not me lying dazed on the floor a moment ago.

"Sorry to have troubled you. I'll just be off," I say, attempting to sail past her.

" 'Old on a minute. Let's be sure you're presentable first." Brigid takes my chin and tilts my face toward the light to inspect it. Her cheeks go pale.

"Is something the matter?" I ask, wondering if I'm more seriously injured than I thought. Brigid's backside may be formidable, but I don't think I could've sustained a bleeding head wound from my battle with it.

Brigid drops my chin, backs away a bit, wiping her hands on her apron as if they're dirty. "Nuffin. Just your eyes is very green. That's all. Go on, now. You'd best catch up wit' the others." And with that, she turns her attention to Molly, who is apparently using the feather duster in the wrong way, and I am free to go about my business.

CHAPTER TEN

The girls are taking some fresh air when I come out to the great lawn. The sun has held all day, and now it's a bright blue afternoon. Low clouds drift lazily across the sky. Up on the hill, the chapel stands straight and tall. Out on the green, the younger girls have wrapped a blindfold around the eyes of a little brown-haired girl. They spin her in circles, then scatter like marbles. She puts her arms out unsteadily, wobbles across the lawn, calling out "Blind man." They yell back "buff," and she feels her way toward their high-pitched voices. Ann's sitting on a bench, reading her halfpenny paper. She spies me but I pretend I don't see her. It's not very kind of me, but I want to be alone.

The forest off to my right looks inviting, and I dart into its cool shelter. The sunlight leaks through the leaves in bits of warmth. I try to catch its sweetness in my fingers but it drips through them to the earth. There's a stillness here, broken only by the muffled calls of "buff" from the girls' game. Mary Dowd's diary sits quietly inside my cape, her secrets weighing the pocket down against my thigh.

If I can discover what she wants me to know, perhaps I'll find a way to understand what is happening to me. I open to a new page and read.

December 31, 1870

Today is my sixteenth birthday. Sarah was quite saucy with me. "Now you will know how it is," she said. When I pressed her to tell me more, she refused me I, who am like her very own sister! "I cannot tell you, my dearest, dearest friend. But you shall know soon enough. And it shall be as a door opening for you." I don't mind saying that I felt very cross with her. She is already sixteen and knows more than I, dear diary. But then she took both my hands in hers, and I cannot feel anything but fondness for her when she is so very kind with me .

What exactly is so glorious about being sixteen is beyond me. If I'd hoped Mary's diary would get more interesting or insightful, I was mistaken. But there's nothing else to do, so I find another passage.

January 7, 1871

Such frightful things are happening to me, dearest diary, that I am afraid to recount them here. I am afraid to speak of them all, even to Sarah. What will become of me?

There's a strange, knotting feeling in my stomach. What could be so terrible that she couldn't confide in her own diary? A breeze comes, bringing the sound of girls. Blind man. Buff . The next entry is dated February 12th. My heart beats faster as I read.

Dearest diary, such blessed relief at last! I am not mad, as I feared. No longer do my visions overtake me with their power, for I have begun to control them at last Oh, diary, they are not frightful, but beautiful! Sarah promised it would be so for me, but I confess I was too afraid of their glory to let myself enter fully. I could only be pulled along against my will, fighting it. But today, oh, it was glorious indeed! When I felt the fever coming on me, I asked it to come. I choose this, I said, and stuck my courage fast. I did not feel a great pressure pushing in on me. This time, it was no more than a gentle shudder, and there it was a beautiful door of light. Oh, diary, I walked through it into a realm of such beauty, a garden with a singing river and flowers that fall from trees like the softest rain. There, what you imagine can be yours. I ran, fast as a deer, my legs powerful and strong, and I was filled with a joy I cannot describe. It seemed I was there for hours, but when I came through the door again, it was as if I'd never left. I found myself again in my room, where Sarah was waiting to embrace me. "Darling Mary, you've done it! Tomorrow, we shall join hands and become one with our sisters. Then we shall know all the mysteries of the realms ."

I'm trembling. Mary and Sarah both had visions. I am not alone. Somewhere out there are two girlstwo women--who might be able to help me. Is this what she wants me to know? A door of light. I've never seen such a thingor a garden. There's been nothing beautiful at all. What if my visions aren't like theirs at all? Kartik told me they would put me in danger, and everything I've experienced seems to prove him right. Kartik, who could be watching me right now, here in these woods. But what if he's wrong? What if he's lying?

It's too much for my head to hold right now. I tuck the book away again and thread in and out between enormous trees, letting my fingers trail over rough bumps on ancient bark. The ground is littered with acorn shells, dead leaves, twigs, forest life.

I reach a clearing and there in front of me is a small, glass-smooth lake. A boathouse stands sentry on the far side. A battered blue rowboat with only one oar is anchored to a tree stump. It slides out and back with the breeze, wrinkling the surface slightly. There's no one around to see me, so I loose the boat from its mooring and climb in. The sun's a warm kiss on my face as my head rests against the bow. I'm thinking of Mary Dowd and her beautiful visions of a door of light, a fantastical garden. If I could control my visions, I'd want most to see my mother's face.

"I'd choose her," I whisper, blinking back tears. Might as well cry, Gem . With my arm across my face, I sob quietly, till I'm spent and my eyes scratch when I blink. The rhythmic lapping of the water against the side of the boat makes me go limp, and soon I'm under sleep's spell.

Dreams come. Running barefoot over forest floor in the night fog, my breath coming out in short white wisps. It's a deer I'm chasing, its milky brown flesh peeking through trees like the taunts of a will-o'-the-wisp. But I'm getting closer. My legs picking up speed till I'm nearly flying, hands reaching out for the deer's flank. Fingers graze the fur and it's no longer a deer but my mother's blue dress. It's my mother, my mother here in this place, the grain of her dress real on my fingers. She breaks into a smile.

"Find me if you can," she says, and runs off.

Part of her hem catches on a tree branch but she tears free. I grab the scrap of fabric, tuck it into my bodice, and chase her through misty woods to an ancient ruin of a temple, its floor scattered with the petals of lilies. I'm afraid I've lost her, but she beckons to me from the path. Through the mist I chase her, till we're in the musty halls of Spence, up and around the endless stairs, down the hallway on the third floor where five class pictures hang in a row. Follow her laugh up the final flight of stairs till I'm standing, alone, at the top, in front of the closed doors to the East Wing. The air is whispering a lullaby to me Come to us, come to us, come to us . Push open the door with the palm of my hand. It's no longer a scorched ruin. The room is alive with light, golden walls and gleaming floors. My mother is gone. Instead, I see the little girl huddled over her doll. Her eyes are large and unblinking. "They promised me my dolly."

I want to say Sorry, I don't understand, but the walls melt away. We're in a land of barren trees, snow, and ice, of harsh winter. Darkness moves on the horizon. A man's face looms. I know him. Amar, Kartik's brother. He's cold and lost, running from something I can't see. And then the dark speaks to me.

"So close"

I come to with a snap and for a moment, with the sun glinting off the water in sharp peaks, I'm not sure where I am. I do know that my heart is hammering away in my chest. The dream seems more real than the water licking at my fingers. And my mother. She was close enough to hold me. Why did she run? Where was she taking me?

My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of low, girlish laughter coming from behind the boathouse. I'm not alone. The laugh comes again and I recognize it as Felicity's. Everything collides in me. Longing for my mother, who slips away from me even in dreams. The layers of mystery in Mary's diary. The shiny-slick hatred I feel for Felicity and Pippa, and all those who flit through life without a care. They've picked the wrong day, the wrong girl for cruel pranks. I'll show them cruel. I could snap their slender necks like twigs.

Careful I'm a monster. Better run for safety. Fly away on your little deer hooves.

I'm out of the rowboat quiet as feathers falling on snow, creeping around the other side of the boathouse, sticking close to the cover of bushes. It's not me who's going to get a fright today. Not on your life. The giggling has softened into murmuring and something else. There's a deeper voice. Male. The Torture Twins are not alone. All the better. I'll surprise the lot of them, let them know I won't be their willing fool ever again.