"He's never been like this before."
"It's time for bed," Win remarked. Worry seeped through her voice like a watermark on fine paper. "Let's go upstairs, Beatrix?Poppy? She glanced at Merripen, who stood at once.
"But Leo's going to break my lantern," Beatrix exclaimed. "Leo, do stop, you're bending the sides!"
Since their brother was apparently beyond hearing or comprehension, Win and Merripen efficiently whisked the younger girls from the room. A questioning murmur from Merripen, and Win replied softly that she would explain in a moment.
When everyone had gone and the sounds of voices had faded from the hallway, Amelia spoke carefully.
"I saw her, too, Leo. So did Win."
Her brother didn't look at her, but his hands stilled on the lantern. After a moment he removed the slide and put it back in again. His hands were shaking. The sight of such raw misery was difficult to bear. Amelia stood and approached him. "Leo, please talk to me. Please?
"Leave me alone." He half shielded his face from her regard, palm turned outward.
"Someone has to stay with you." The room was getting colder. A tremor began at the top of Amelia's spine and worked downward.
"I'm fine." A few stunted breaths. With a titanic effort Leo lowered his hand and stared at her with strange light eyes. "I'm fine, Amelia. I just need ... I want... a little time alone."
"But I want to talk about what we saw right in front of us."
"It was nothing." He was sounding calmer by the second. "It was an illusion."
"It was Laura's face. You and Win and I all saw it!"
"We all saw the same shadow." The barest hint of wry amusement edged his lips. "Come, sis, you're too rational to believe in ghosts."
"Yes, but? She was reassured by the familiar mockery in his tone. And yet she didn't like the way he kept one hand on the lamp.
"Go on," he urged gently. "As you said, it's late. You need to rest. I'll be all right."
Amelia hesitated, her arms chilled and stinging beneath the sleeves of her gown. "If you really want?
"Yes. Go on."
She did, reluctantly. A draft from somewhere seemed to rush past her as she left the room. She hadn't intended to close the door fully, but it snapped shut like the jaws of a hungry animal.
It was difficult to make herself walk away. She wanted to protect her brother from something. She just didn't know what it was. After reaching her room, Amelia changed into her favorite nightgown. The white flannel was thick and shrunken from many washings, the high collar and long sleeves textured with white-work embroidery that Win had done. The chill she had taken downstairs was slow to fade, even after she had crawled beneath the bedclothes and curled tightly into a ball. She should have thought to light a fire at the hearth. She should do it now, to make the room warmer, but the idea of climbing out of bed was not appealing in the least.
Instead she occupied her mind with thoughts of hot things; a cup of tea, a woolen shawl, a steaming bath, a flannel-wrapped brick from the hearth. Gradually warmth accumulated around her, and she relaxed enough to sleep. But it was a troubled rest. She had the impression of arguing with people in her dreams, back-and-forth conversations that made no sense. Shifting, rolling to her stomach, her side, her back, she tried to ignore the bothersome dreams.
Now there were voices... Poppy's voice, actually... and no matter how she tried to ignore it, the sound persisted.
She heaved herself up on her elbows, blind and confused from the sudden awakening. Poppy was by her bed.
"What is it?" Amelia mumbled, scraping back a tangled curtain of hair from her face.
At first Poppy's face was disembodied in the darkness, but as Amelia's eyes adjusted, the rest of her became dimly visible.
"I smell smoke," Poppy said.
Such words were never used lightly, nor could they ever be dismissed without investigation. Fire was an ever-present concern no matter where one lived. It could start in any number of ways, from overturned candles, lamps, sparks that leaped from the hearth or embers from coal-burning ovens. And fire in a house this old would be nothing less than disaster.
Struggling from the bed, Amelia hunted for the slipper box near the end of the bed. She stubbed her toe, and hopped and cursed.
"Here, I'll fetch them." Poppy lifted the tin lid of the slipper box and took the shoes out, while Amelia found a shawl.
They linked arms and made their way through the dark room with the caution of elderly cats.
Reaching the top of the stairs, Amelia sniffed hard but could detect nothing other than the familiar accumulation of cleaning soap, wax, dust, and lamp oil. "I don't smell any smoke."
"Your nose isn't awake. Try again."
This time there was a definite taint of something burning. Alarm speared through her. She thought of Leo, alone with the lantern, the flame and oil... and she knew instantly what had happened.
"Merripen!" The whip-crack force of her voice caused Poppy to jump. Amelia gripped her sister's arm to steady her. "Get Merripen. Wake everyone up. Make as much noise as you can."
Poppy obeyed at once, scampering toward her siblings' bedrooms while Amelia made her way downstairs. A sullen glow came from the direction of the parlor, an ominous flickering light bleeding beneath the door.
"Leo!" She flung the door open and recoiled at a furnace blast that struck her entire body. One wall was covered in flame, rippling and curling upward in hot tentacles. Through a bitter haze of smoke, her brother's bulky form was visible on the floor. She ran to him, grasped the folds of his shirt, and tugged so hard that the cloth began to give and the seams crackled. "Leo, get up, get up now!" But Leo was insensible.