As Bentham extolled the virtues of grimbears, we came into a small anteroom. Under a glass canopy in the middle of the room were three ladies and, towering over them, a giant, vicious-looking bear. My breath caught for a moment before I realized they were motionless, another of Bentham’s displays.
“That’s Miss Waxwing, Miss Troupial, and Miss Grebe,” Bentham said, “and their grim, Alexi.”
The grimbear, on second look, appeared to be protecting the wax ymbrynes. The ladies were posed calmly around it while the bear was raised on its hind legs, frozen in midroar while swiping its paw at an enemy. Its other paw rested almost sweetly on one of the ymbrynes’ shoulders, and her fingers were hooked around one of its long nails, as if to demonstrate her casual mastery over such a fearsome creature.
“Alexi was PT’s great-uncle,” Bentham said. “Say hello to your uncle, PT!”
“If only you could do that with hollows,” Emma whispered to me.
“How long does it take to train a grimbear?” I asked Bentham.
“Years,” he replied. “Grims are naturally very independent.”
“Years,” I whispered to Emma.
Emma rolled her eyes. “And is Alexi made of wax, too?” she said to Bentham.
“Oh no, he’s taxidermy.”
Apparently Bentham’s aversion to stuffing peculiar folk did not extend to peculiar animals. If Addison were here, I thought, there’d be fireworks.
I shivered. Emma ran a warm hand up my back. Bentham noticed, too, and said, “Forgive me! I so seldom have visitors that I can’t help showing off my collection when they come. Now, I keep promising tea, and tea there shall be!”
Bentham pointed his cane and PT resumed walking. We followed them out of the dust-sheeted artifact storerooms through other parts of the house. It was in many ways the home of an average rich man—there was a marble-columned entry hall, a formal dining room with tapestried walls and seating for dozens, wings whose sole purpose seemed to be the display of tastefully arranged furnishings. But in each room, alongside everything else, were always a few objects from Bentham’s peculiar collection.
“Fifteenth-century Spain,” he said, indicating a gleaming suit of armor standing in a hall. “Had it made new. Fits me like a glove!”
At last we came to the library—the most beautiful I’d ever seen. Bentham told PT to set him down, brushed fur from his jacket, and showed us in. The room was three stories high at least, with shelves rising to dizzying heights above us. An array of staircases, catwalks, and rolling ladders had been constructed to reach them.
“I confess I haven’t read them all,” Bentham said, “but I’m working on it.”
He ushered us toward a battalion of couches surrounding a flaming hearth whose warmth filled the room. Waiting by the fire were Sharon and Nim. “Call me an untrustworthy lout!” Sharon hissed, but before he berated me further Bentham shooed him away to fetch us blankets. We were under the protection of the master’s good graces, and Sharon’s tongue-lashing would have to wait.
Within a minute we were seated on a couch and wrapped in blankets. Nim fluttered around preparing tea on gilded trays, and PT, curled before the flames, was fast settling into a state of hibernation. I tried to resist the feeling of cozy contentedness that was beginning to settle over me and focus on our unfinished business—the big questions and seemingly intractable problems. Our friends and ymbrynes. The absurd and hopeless task we had assigned ourselves. It was enough to crush me if I thought about it all at once. So I asked Nim for three lumps of sugar and enough cream to turn the tea white, then downed it in three gulps and asked for more.
Sharon had retreated to a corner, where he could sulk but still overhear our conversation.
Emma was eager to dispense with the formalities. “So,” she said. “Can we talk now?”
Bentham ignored her. He was sitting across from us but staring at me, the oddest little grin on his face.
“What?” I said, wiping a dribble of tea from my chin.
“It’s uncanny,” he replied. “You’re the spitting image.”
“Of your grandfather, of course.”
I lowered my teacup. “You knew him?”
“I did. He was a friend to me, long ago, when I badly needed one.”
I glanced at Emma. She’d gone a bit pale and was clenching her teacup.
“He died a few months ago,” I said.
“Yes. I was very sorry to hear it,” Bentham said. “And surprised, to be honest, that he held out as long as he did. I assumed he’d been killed years ago. He had so many enemies—but he was exceedingly talented, your grandfather.”
“What was the nature of your friendship, exactly?” said Emma, her tone like a police interrogator’s.
“And you must be Emma Bloom,” Bentham said, finally looking at her. “I’ve heard a great deal about you.”
She seemed surprised. “You have?”
“Oh, yes. Abraham was very fond of you.”
“That’s news to me,” she said, blushing.
“You’re even prettier than he said you were.”
She clenched her jaw. “Thank you,” she said flatly. “How did you know him?”
Bentham’s smile wilted. “Down to business, then.”
“If you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all,” he said, though his demeanor had cooled by a few degrees. “Now, you asked me before about the Siberia Room, and I know, Miss Bloom, that you were unsatisfied with the answer I gave.”