|We're two spirits, destined to be enemies, yet fated to be something far less sinister, far more innocent. What is that something, precisely? Allies? Sweethearts? Lovers?|
-Phantasmagoria, page 346
|"She wasn't beautiful in respect to how society wants one to be. Nay, she was beautiful by herself alone.|
She lacked the tall height of her peers, lacked the outrageous fringes of models in the periodicals, and lacked the imperious glower of her mother.
Instead, she was Ophelia Ravenwood—a tiny, pale-skinned dove with green eyes as vibrant and deep as the sea. Through each passing moment, he took note of the suggestions of her natural beauty—from the way in which her red-brown curls jounced and gleamed, to the arch in which she craned her delicate neck, to the roseate blush that suffused every inch of her at the sound of his teases and jests. She was damned to be loved by few. She was damned to be unloved by many. It was just the way of things.
And yes, how fearful she was! How frail! She was a suggestion of a stroke upon a canvas, transparent and quavering. He often wondered if she was plagued. The shadows ringing her eyes were answer enough. The way in which her eyes twitched about the suffocating crowds, her brows drew when she thought, her fingers trembled when she spoke, her shoulders hunched as she walked all bespoke her calamitous and petrified state. He had nary a thing to say or to do to reverse it. It was as if any attempts to soothe her were fruitless. She was plagued with eternal anxiety, and cared too much of what other people thought; she allowed herself to be led, to be molded, to be deceived. Truly, she craved the praise of others to make herself feel a whisper of completeness.
And late at night when he'd traverse the roof to blink at the sky to see the sky blink back, he pondered how that enigmatic girl felt of him.
Or if she even felt for him at all, for he could never tell."
Somewhere between the bucolic fields and London, Raife decides it’s best that I walk. Silence descends upon us, and neither of us utter a word until we glimpse the first carriage—a certain hallmark of noise, of distraction.
We hail a cab at a quarter to three. The smog thickens, and with it the people. We trundle along, across Tower Bridge, (perceiving the thick odiousness of the Thames as we do—I wrinkle my nose at the stench, while Raife is unperturbed; while we cross over the bridge, my throat constricts in fear at the sheer height of it: higher up than I could possibly dream!), travel down Newgate Street, past Piccadilly Circus. A somber afternoon sun sags over the city when Raife and I at last alight to the sidewalk. He gestures vaguely up ahead to a one-story edifice that shrinks back into the concrete, as if afraid to be seen.
“The Gilded Rose,” Raife grunts, pushing ahead.
Gilded? It’s anything but. “Perhaps it should be called The Grout Rose,” I mutter to myself as I make haste after him.
His hotel is a single-storied thing, composed of crumbling cement and scores of cobwebs. The concierge is nowhere to be found. It is likely that he has abandoned his fleet with a sound mind.
“I thought you were staying in a different hotel,” I say as I scurry down the hall, failing to keep pace with him, he of long legs and swift gait.
“My arrangements have changed,” he hisses. At the very end of the hall, he fumbles for a key within his coat pocket. The brass skeleton jiggles in the handle, yet falls from his hands in a quavering fit on the matted rug. “Blast!” He reels upon me, thrusting out an expectant palm. “My spectacles, if you please, miss. I’ve a female confidant awaiting me inside, and she is rather an impatient lady.”
“Truly you’re not being serious,” I scoff as I rummage for his inane lenses. I press the spectacles into his hand. “You are not Clark Leeford! You do not need those...those asinine spectacles! And...and who is this mysterious lady you speak of? I thought you to be engaged!”
He says not a word and unlatches the door.
The Gilded Rose commits as much attention to the building’s exterior as they do the suites. The room is dimly lit by a small casement window no bigger than my skull; if the door was barricaded, and an inferno blazed throughout the hotel (if I can truly define it as such anymore, because really, it is no more than a shed) escape would be impossible. Raife flickers to the side of the room, where a slouching desk waits, and pulls out a kerosene lamp from beneath it. He lights it. The lantern hurls sporadic beams of orange across the room; he paces between fingers of black and amber, alternating between light and shadow. He halts in a talon of obsidian. “Well? Go on, say it.”
“All right, very well,” I reply curtly, wandering over to the gaunt bed on which he lays his head every evening. As I perch upon it, the springs erupt in a sharp yelp. “You live in a coffin.”
“Ah, but are coffins equipped with cots and a lantern?”
“Fine,” I acquiese. “You live in a crypt.”
He filters through an overpass of light, a stark illumination that shepherds him to the window that seems to shrink with every pulsing second. Below it, he gestures broadly to a space I hadn’t considered before, so engulfed was it in shadow. “And what of this?”
I peer closer. Beneath the blotted shadows of his fingers lies an amalgam of the strangest compilation of papers I’ve ever seen. Tacked to the wall, pasted to the plaster, fluttering in the open window’s stale zephyr, is a collection of astrological maps and routes, figures and diagrams. The stars peek through the slats of his fingers; Cassiopeia, one of the few constellations I can recall, scintillates in pallid chalk.
I swallow. Though I’m rather intrigued, I don an indifference I don’t sense. I raise my chin and spit, “Allow me to correct myself: you’re a deranged zealot who lives in a crypt.”
Raife’s shoulders heave. He shoves away from the wall and retreats to the desk. A vehement remorse takes up host in my belly, and I must clamp my teeth forcefully upon my fist to quell a scream of frustration.
“When you asked me earlier,” Raife murmurs, “If you had changed for the better…” He turns up his head to examine me with doleful eyes. He lets his sentence dangle in midair, lets it thrash and wrench about in a death throe. He sighs sharply. Then, he twists his torso so that his back presses against the desk.
We two observe idly, then, as a battalion of snowflakes cross the windowsill and collect in a wet pile on the rug.
“W-what of that impatient lady you spoke about earlier?” I ask quietly, my eyes tracing a frail particle of snow as it caresses my nose in a frigid kiss.
“Ah, yes!” he replies, a smile splitting the seam of his lips. “Would you care to make her acquaintance?”
Before I can utter my dissent, he stoops beneath the bed and dips his arm underneath the array of curling, frayed springs. For a moment, I suspect him to brandish a photo of his latest gentlewoman, or perhaps unfurl a letter fragranced with lilac perfume.
Instead, he presents a cat.
“You told me once that you fancy felines,” Raife remarks. He places his protesting bundle upon the thin wool of his duvet and steps back, beaming. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
Upon closer inspection, I confirm that the feline is anything but beautiful.
Below her cheek, she possesses an abundance of whiskers both crumbling and wiry. Her fur, thick and curdled, retains the hue of spoiled milk. I don't dare touch her; instead, I let my eyes draw the conclusions: she's nothing more than protruding bones and a hollow mew; it's as if a singular, imperceptible breath could fleet her across the block, never to be seen again. With a dour furrow of her brows—if cats can possibly feel dour—she regards me with watery green eyes. And below that pair of eyes is an anthology of scars, worn rather like trophies than the stigmas they are; they intersect at the face, as if echoing the shriveling blue veins underneath. She sweeps her tail: a small pall of dust and mites arch up to embrace her fur like wanton lovers. Lazily, she opens her mouth, revealing gleaming teeth. In place of a meow, mere air, crackling and faint, pushes past her maw.
Yet as I stare into her, I can see myself reflected within those large pools of insipid green. It seems we both view one another as the people we truly are: homely.
“You know, she rather reminds me of you,” he says as he scratches the smug cat's ears.
I narrow my eyes. “And to think that I was once fond of cats.”
“I call her Umbra,” he says as he scrubs her face with his hand; she melds to his touch as easy as molten wax. With his other hand, he gestures to the soot-colored stockings upon her every limb. “See these markings here? How the black blends with the white of her fur? Umbra means shadow; it is, in fact, the deepest part of a shadow. It can be produced by the earth or the moon, during an eclipse. I thought the name was aptly chosen.”
I nod in agreement. I watch with mild irritation as Umbra, purring, ambles closer to Raife. As she hooks her tail round his arm and blinks back at me triumphantly, a stone of resentment plunges through my stomach.
No. I cannot be envious of a cat, for I should not even care for Raife, for what he’s done.
Yet why, then, does my stomach roil even at the slightest nudge she gives him, at the adoration glazing in his eyes?
“Are animals permitted in this hotel?” I mutter bitterly.
“No,” Raife says as he presses his cheek to his cat’s flank. “But I’d make any exception for her.”
“However did you happen upon her and her...charming qualities?”
“A week after I arrived, I was arranged in my former hotel. I was out for a stroll when I found her stumbling round in the snow, calling out with that quiet meow of hers. I just couldn’t leave her to the winter, could I? So I took her into my suite and provided for her. As it turns out, she rather abhors sardines.”
“Why did you relocate? Surely the other establishment had far fairer accommodations.”
“Miss Palmer wished for me to have a temporary residence closer to her home. This was all I could find. She provides for me monetarily.”
As a fierce wave of jealousy pulsates in my throat, I rise from the bed, clutching at my neck. “Why do you hoard these illustrations, anyway?” I query as I wander over to his collection of astrology.
“And here I was, believing you to be a creative mind,” Raife says. “Yet you question my artistic choices?”
“I was merely curious,” I whisper faintly.
Umbra patters to the floor as Raife saunters behind me. He scoops her into his arms, not unlike the way in which he hoisted me at the lake, and says, “You told me that you had something to say about my father. Was that all a mere fable to get us where we are now?”
“No,” I rasp. “It’s not a fable.” I whirl to face him, pausing only to marvel at the pliant shadows that knead across the fine architecture of his face; God, how can this be? How can light indulge so beautifully upon someone so very deceitful and wicked? I shake myself of my reverie and say, “Your father is not tracking you. He’s tracking me.”
“That’s absurd,” Raife spits, lashing away from me. He deposits Umbra to the floor; she vanishes beneath the bed. “I did everything in my power to assure that he would trace my route and keep from you. Surely his insatiable vengeance would have forced him to follow me?”
I wrench his father’s note from my bodice, flatten it across his hand. “Read this, Raife. It was tacked to the chest of our stablehand—the stablehand your father murdered! Look, Raife. Please! ‘Don't think that I've forgotten about you’! What else could it mean? It’s what inspired me to come to London in the first place.” As he begins to wander away, I whisper, “He appeared at my mother’s dinner party. Surely he’s tracked me to London, and is waiting to strike—”
“This is your fault that he’s here,” Raife hisses. He takes the bloodied note in his hand and hurls it across the floor. “You, with your snivelling behavior and mad eyes. You didn’t convince the police! Perhaps my father would be locked away, far from here, if you had persuaded them.”
I ignore his jeer and say, “I had to come!”
“I told you not to come!”
“Pray tell, when did you ever say that?”
“In my latest letter,” rasps Raife, “I specifically instructed for you to stay put.” He eyes my trembling, vacant fingers. “Do you have the letter I sent?”
Of course I do. I’ve kept it adhered to my side ever since it arrived in my hands. I relinquish it to him.
“Oh, good God,” Raife moans. He jabs the back of his hand at the letter and turns sharply away. “The ink rubbed clean!”
“So, you see? I wouldn’t have known,” I hiss, snatching the letter from him.
Raife shakes his head, slowly and methodically. He whirls away from me and crosses to the desk. “You’re a fool.”
“A fool? A fool for doing what I thought was best?” I cry. Stamping to his side, I wrench him round to face me. “I don’t have the luxury of safety that you do, Raife.”
“You think that I’m safe?” Raife bellows. “My father is hunting me, too, Ophelia! He’s smelt my blood, and now he’s after it!” He thrusts a trembling finger at my chest as he growls, “You carry the blame.” He flees from me. Hurling himself down upon the bed, he thrashes his fist upon the metal framing till filaments of blood sprout from his hand.
I rush to his side, staying his fist that refuses to quit. “Raife! Stop that, you’re hurting yourself!”
He reels upon me, howling. “Leave me!”
It takes not a second warning for me to desert him. I scurry down the hallway, past the concierge that is not there, and out onto the tempest of London’s streets. By the time I’ve rounded a bend and drawn up my hood, dusk has collapsed upon me, and there is no returning to Raife even if I wanted to.
—Vertigo, pages 166-172