"He isn't my brother by birth," Lizzie Rose explained, "but we have the same guardian, so I call him my brother." Her eyes went to one of the paintings on the wall. "Are those your brothers and sisters?"
Parsefall looked at the painting. He had not examined it before, since it was much too large to steal. Now that he looked at it, it struck him as queer and therefore interesting. It was huge, with a gold frame full of swirls and little holes. Five life-size children stood together in a tangle of garden. The light suggested that it was early evening, and they had been gathering flowers. There were two girls with long golden hair. The taller of the two leaned against a broken column; the other held a small child on her lap and crowned him with a daisy chain. A boy with curly hair and laughing eyes stood next to a dark-haired girl with ringlets.
It was evidently Clara Wintermute, but she looked younger in the picture, and as though she didn't quite belong. The other children stood like deer poised for flight; the air around their
bodies was faintly luminous, like mist or pale fire. Beside them, Clara looked dense and stiff : a wooden statue.
A little gasp came from Lizzie Rose. Parsefall looked back at the two girls. Something had passed between them. Lizzie Rose reached across the table to press Clara's hand.
"I'm so sorry," Lizzie Rose whispered.
Clara shook her head violently.
Parsefall gaped at them, feeling as if a joke had been told and he'd missed the punch line. "Wot is it?" he demanded.
"They' re " Lizzie Rose lowered her voice. "They're in heaven, aren't they? I'm so sorry."
"Wot?" repeated Parsefall.
Clara spoke brusquely. "My brothers and sisters are dead."
Parsefall considered this. His eyes went back to the painting.
"All of 'em?" he said incredulously.
Lizzie Rose hissed. "Parsefall!"
"There was cholera." Clara spoke hurriedly, as if eager to get the explanation over with. " Quentin was just a baby. That's Selina by the column she was the eldest. She was seven, and Adelaide was six, and Charles Augustus and I were five. He was my twin."
She hesitated a moment and plunged on. "Papa thinks the contagion was in the watercress. I was naughty that day. I've never liked eating green things, and I wouldn't eat the watercress at tea. So I wasn't ill, but the others died." She bent her head and brought up one hand as if to cover her face. "Of course, it was dreadful for Mamma. For Papa, too, but Mamma nearly died of grief." She cleared her throat. "It was seven years ago. I'm twelve
years old today."
Parsefall looked back at the picture. "You're five years old in that?" he asked, jerking his thumb at the canvas.
"Not in that picture," Clara told him. "That was painted four years ago. Mamma had an artist come to the house she wanted a picture of the way they might have looked, if only they'd lived. Of course we have photographs and their death masks." She indicated four white casts over the piano. " Mamma says we must keep them alive by thinking of them all the time. We must never forget them or stop loving them."
Parsefall stared at the death masks on the wall. "Wot's a death mask?"
Lizzie Rose kicked him under the table.
"They take plaster," Clara said very calmly, "and press it over the the dear one's face. And then later take more plaster and make a mask. That way " She stopped and covered her mouth with her hand. She did not seem grief stricken so much as embarrassed.
Parsefall's eyes went back to the four white casts. "That's nasty," he said. "Stickin' plaster on somebody's face wot's dead. It's ' orrible."
Lizzie Rose kicked him a second time, harder. But Clara's blue eyes met Parsefall's. Something flashed between them. It was almost as if she said, I think so, too.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...