“I thought you said this story wasn’t real,” I said.
“I’m getting to that,” Bentham said, then turned to Nim, who was hovering nearby. “You can go, Nim. We don’t need any more tea.”
“Sorry, sir, didn’t mean to eavesdrop, sir, but this is my favorite part.”
Nim dropped cross-legged to the floor and propped his chin on his hands.
“As I was saying. For a short but terrible time, destruction and misery befell our people. Control of the library changed hands often, accompanied by immense bloodletting. Then one day it stopped. The self-declared king of Abaton had been killed in battle, and the one who killed him was on his way to claim the library for himself—but he never found it. Overnight, the loop had disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” I said.
“There one day, gone the next,” said Emma.
“Poof,” said Nim.
“According to legend, the Library of Souls was located in the hills of the ancient city of Abaton. But when the would-be king arrived to claim his prize, the library was gone. So was the town. Gone as if they’d never been there at all, a smooth green meadow in their place.”
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“There’s nothing to it, though,” Emma said. “It’s just an old tale.”
“The Legend of the Lost Loop,” I said, reading the page that the book in my hands was open to.
“We may never know for certain if Abaton is a real place,” Bentham said, his lips spreading into a sphinx’s smile. “That’s what makes it a legend. But like rumors of buried treasure, the legendariness of the story has not stopped people, over the centuries, from searching for it. It is said that Perplexus Anomalous himself committed years to the hunt for the lost loop of Abaton—which is how he began to discover so many of the loops that appear on his famous maps.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Emma. “I suppose something good came of it, then.”
“And something very bad,” Bentham added. “My brother, too, believed the story. Foolishly, I forgave him this frailty—and I ignored it, realizing too late how completely it drove him. By then, my charismatic brother had convinced our small army of young recruits that it was true. Abaton was real. The Library of Souls was discoverable. Perplexus had gotten so close, he told them, and all that was left to do was to complete his work. Then the vast and dangerous power contained in the library could belong to us. To them.
“I waited too long, and this idea became a cancer. They searched and searched for the lost loop, mounting expedition after expedition, each failure only fueling their zeal. The goal of uniting peculiardom was forgotten. All along, my brother had cared only about ruling it, like the would-be peculiar gods of old. And when I tried to challenge him and regain control of the machine I’d built, he smeared me as a traitor, turned the others against me, and locked me in a cell.”
Bentham had been squeezing the crook of his cane like a neck he wished he could wring, but now he looked up, his face gaunt as a death mask. “Perhaps by now you’ve guessed his name.”
My eyes snapped to Emma. Hers were wide as moons. We said it together:
Bentham nodded. “His real name is Jack.”
Emma leaned forward. “Then your sister is …”
“My sister is Alma Peregrine,” he said.
* * *
We gaped at Bentham, thunderstruck. Could the man before us really be Miss Peregrine’s brother? I’d known she had two—she’d mentioned them once or twice, even shown me a picture of them as boys. She told me the story, too, of how their quest for immortality led to the disaster in 1908 that turned them and their followers into hollowgast and, later, the wights we knew and feared. But she’d never mentioned either brother by name, and her story bore little resemblance to the one Bentham had just laid out.
“If what you say is true,” I said, “then you must be a wight.”
Nim’s mouth fell open. “Mr. Bentham is not.” He was ready to stand and defend his master’s honor when Bentham waved him off.
“It’s all right, Nim. They’ve only heard Alma’s version of things. But there are gaps in her knowledge.”
“I don’t hear you denying it,” said Emma.
“I’m not a wight,” Bentham said sharply. He was also not accustomed to being questioned by the likes of us, and his pride was beginning to poke through his genteel veneer.
“Then would you mind if we checked,” I said, “just so we can be sure …”
“Not at all,” Bentham said. He pushed himself up with his cane and hobbled into the no-man’s-land between our couches. PT raised his head, idly curious, while Nim turned his back, angry that his master should have to endure such humiliations.
We met Bentham on the carpet. He bent down a little so we wouldn’t have to stand on our tiptoes—he was surprisingly tall—and waited while we searched the whites of his eyes for signs of contact lenses or other fakery. His pupils were terribly bloodshot, as if he hadn’t slept in days, but otherwise unsuspicious.
We stepped back. “Okay, you’re not a wight,” I said. “But that means you can’t be Caul’s brother.”
“I’m afraid the set of assumptions you are working from is erroneous,” he said. “I was responsible for my brother and his followers becoming hollowgast, but I never became one myself.”