Read The Cabinet of Earths Online

Authors: Anne Nesbet

The Cabinet of Earths (6 page)

“Wow!” said James. “Wow! Wow! Wow! The Evil Tower! And NOW we get to go up to the very, very top!”

But the lines for the elevators were incredibly long; the snaking crowds waiting for their turn to buy tickets and zip up to the very, very top covered about a third of that enormous plaza between the tower's feet.

“Come on,” said Valko. “Look how short the line for the stairs is. This way! We'll walk up.”

“But I
like
elevators,” said James a little sadly, as he trailed along after Valko. He cheered up once they were actually on the stairs, though. It was like climbing up inside the legs of a great machine. Climbing up and up and up, until beyond the metal lattice the world began to swim.

Once they had reached the second floor, Maya had to distract James from the sad news that tourists were not allowed to climb the stairs any higher, so she said he could take a couple of coins from her and try looking through one of the telescopes. It took him a long time to determine which telescope was the best one, but finally it was the glimpse of his very own school down below and to the east that decided him.

“I can see the trees in the courtyard!” he said. “That's where we play pirates and burglars during recess. . . . Don't wobble me, Maya! And look! There's the Salamander House! This is great!”

Maya looked down, her heart suddenly thudding away as if some secret of hers had been discovered. There it was, indeed: the Salamander House, right at the end of the short street far below where James's school was. That much she could see without the help of any telescope. James, his eye glued to the end of the telescope, suddenly began waving his hand in a merry arc.

“James! What are you doing?” said Maya.

“He's there again,” said James. “The man in the window.”

“Stop that!” said Maya. “Let me look.”

She was not as gentle as she might have been, but the coins would run out in a minute, and fear was unexpectedly bubbling up in her chest.

“What man?” Valko asked James.

“He's interested in us,” said James. “He has glasses like a spy! He talked to Daddy the first day, and when he saw us, he said we were perfect and charming. I think he's nice.”

“Perfect and charming!” said Valko, half-teasing. “Are you sure about that?”

“That's
exactly
what he said, right, Maya? Didn't he say that, Maya? Maya!”

But Maya was trying to concentrate.

She had found the house right away, all its carvings and stone creatures crisply etched into the telescope's field of vision. Maya even thought she could see the door's bronze salamander, its head turned wonderingly in her direction. She moved the telescope a half inch higher, and there on his
little balcony was the same dark-haired young man who had been standing there weeks ago, on that first morning in Paris. Who had come out of that door and walked right to their own apartment building and left a business card behind that said, “H
ENRI DE
FOURCROY
, D
IRECTOR
.” The very same one. He had what looked like binoculars in his hands. Yes, definitely binoculars. He was looking through them toward the entrance of James's school; then in one fluid motion he turned the binoculars right up toward Maya and James and Valko. He was looking at them. He was totally looking at them.

She dropped the telescope as if it had stung her.

“Maya!” said James. “Give it back! It's my turn!”

“Not now,” said Maya. “Money ran out. Come away from here.”

“Was he there?” asked Valko. “Who is he?”

“Let's go back down,” said Maya.

At least inside the ironwork of the tower's legs they would not be so visible, so terribly visible.

“Okay, okay,” said Maya to Valko as they descended from step to step to step (and her words came out in a jumbled, jouncing rush). “I forgot to tell you about this part. He's the head of that Society thing, the one on the avenue Rapp. But his name is Fourcroy. Like the old guy with the sets: Remember I told you about him? So maybe this guy's even a relative or something, since the old one is. But the weird thing is, he paid for us to come to France. I mean, the
Society
did. They gave my dad money—a fellowship. And the apartment, too.”

She had to pause for a moment to catch her breath; that's how fast they were going down those stairs.

“Hunh,” said Valko, shaking his head. “Are you saying the guy in charge of all the Beautiful People is maybe your relative? And he invited you to Paris?”

“He didn't say he was a relative,” said Maya. “If he even is.”

They were finally back out in the September sun, no longer filtered through wire safety fences and woven iron.

“That was six hundred steps!” said James. “I was counting almost all of the way. That was maybe more than six hundred steps!”

Maya heaved a sigh of relief, glad to be back on the ground—and less visible. But before she knew it, Valko and James had led her right back down the street past James's school, past the old lady always plonked on the bench at the corner, past the spindly tree where the crosswalk ended, and there, right in front of her now, was the salamander on the door again, turning his head right around as if he had a message for her. Something to say.

“Maya?” said Valko. “Are you all right?”

“It shouldn't be
moving
like that,” said Maya in some distress. “Should it?”

“Maya?”

“The salamander!” she said. “You really don't see it?”

“It's metal,” said Valko, in his sensible way. “I think you'd need a blowtorch to budge it.”

“Oh, come
on
,” said Maya, grabbing James's hand to pull them all farther down the street to the right, away from the door and the salamander and that building with all its flowing waves of stone.

But at that very second (Maya and Valko flattened themselves as inconspicuously as possible against the wall), the door of the Salamander House flew open, and a woman stepped through it. She was very beautiful and very young, and her clothes were far too fancy for three o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon. Really, she looked like someone who belonged in a magazine, not on an actual sidewalk. (Even a sidewalk in Paris.) But what was most striking about her was that she was happy, happy, happy, quite glowing with happiness and relief.

“Oh, he has saved my life,” she was saying to the man coming through the door behind her. “Can't you feel it? He and the
anbar
. . . .”

“Come,
chérie
,” said the man. “It is a feast to look on you.”

And it really was. You wanted to stare and stare. Or maybe even go up to her and say just anything, in the odd chance she would turn her radiant eyes right on you. And the man was glowing, too. Maya had never seen anything quite like it. But Valko poked her sharply in the arm, and she pulled her eyes away from them, so as not to be caught staring.

The couple turned the other way, heading up the street past the old lady on her bench, and Maya had just given James's hand a brisk tug, as a way of reminding him they were actually on their way home, when a low whistle made her look back toward the door of the Salamander House, where Valko was standing, quite casual-like, his left leg angled in a slightly awkward way.

He had caught the outer door with his foot before it could close.

“Well, hey,” he said, his voice almost a shadow of itself. “Look at this.”

And he slipped right in through the salamander door—and held it open after him.

Chapter 7
The Purple-Eyed Fourcroy

M
aya had an impression of elaborately carved walls and stairs twining away from the hall and light spilling in from the courtyard ahead, but those first few seconds she was whispering so fiercely at Valko that nothing else was quite in focus.

“What are you doing!” she was saying. “We can't just wander in like this!”

But of course by then she already had, and, what's more, had brought James right in through the door with her. He was straining now to reach the wildly complicated metal railings that slithered up around pairs of marble pillars on either side of the entryway.

“Look! It's squids!” said James.

Well, true, there might be something aquatic going on in those patterns of coiled iron, but Maya had other things on her mind at the moment.

“Shh,” she said, and tightened her grip on his hand another notch or two. “Come on, Valko, let's go.”

“You know who those people outside were?” said Valko, scanning the walls and doorways with his bright gray eyes. “The Dolphin's parents.”

“You're kidding,” said Maya. They hadn't looked very much like parents to her, so young and so radiant. It twisted something sharp in her, thinking how old and tired her mother would look placed next to that beautiful woman stepping across the threshold with such confidence and grace. “They can't be old enough to have a kid our age. Can they?”

“They're rich,” said Valko, as if that explained it all. “Hey, and look at this: There he is, your possible Uncle Fourcroy.”

By the inner door there was a panel with names and buzzers.

She pulled James up the two marble steps to the door to see for herself. And there it was:
Henri de Fourcroy
. In tiny handwriting that looked about a million years old. He hadn't been in the phone book, but here he was all the same.

“Can I push the button?” asked James.

“No!” said Maya.

“Not even if he's really truly our uncle?” said James.

And at that moment a voice on the intercom cleared its throat. It sounded almost amused.

“Dear children,” it said, in a very French sort of English. “If you have come here for visiting me, then you should certainly continue up the stairs on the right, should you not? Fourth floor.”

“You pressed that button!
said Maya under her breath to James. His eyes were wide. He gave his head a shake, staring all the time at the panel on the wall that had so unexpectedly begun to speak.

“I did not!” he said, using his ordinary voice, the voice that carried so well on playgrounds, in classrooms, and on public buses.

“Excuse us,” said Valko into the intercom in his best French, which was still significantly better than Maya's best French. “Excuse us for disturbing you,
monsieur
.”

“But you aren't disturbing me at all!” said the voice. “And if I am your uncle, then we should definitely converse, is that not so? I am unlatching the door now: here.”

And there was a click from the double glass doors ahead of them as the latch was released. Valko caught the door with his hand and then looked back at Maya with a questioning shrug. And she—

What could she say in her defense? The voice speaking to them over the intercom, like the elegant young man she knew it belonged to, had a certain magnetic allure. Indeed, it was one of the pleasantest, most appealing voices Maya had ever heard: at once friendly and welcoming and warm. It was a voice that inspired confidence, even trust. And there had been a salamander on the Cabinet of Earths: Yes, she was curious about all the salamanders. That was probably part of it, too.

“Be good children,” said the voice as an afterthought, “and bring up my mail, if you would. On the table in the vestibule.
Merci bien!

The stairwell was beautiful, too; more loops and tendrils in the stained-glass windows bringing light into the stairway from the courtyard in back.

Maya clutched Monsieur de Fourcroy's packet of letters in one hand and James's warm palm in the other. She was surprising herself, by walking so bravely up these stairs, and she wasn't sure yet whether she liked that feeling.

“Your
Uncle Fourcroy
!” said Valko, more than once, as they climbed the stairs. And he shook his head in disbelief.

Maya tried to shut him up with a glare, but the stairs were a bit too shadowy for glares.

“Remember to be very polite,” she said to James. “He's not really our uncle. Some kind of very, very distant cousin, maybe. So just be polite.”

But when they got to the landing of the fourth floor and the dark wooden door swung open before them, James stuck out his free hand as if there were no doubt about any of it at all.


Bonjour
, Uncle-Cousin!”

And the brown-haired man who had opened the door laughed aloud and shook James's hand with mock seriousness.

“But I haven't met you all,” he said. “Not all of you, I don't believe.”

“I'm James Davidson,” said James. “You sort of met me and Maya the first day we were in Paris. Right? Remember that?”

“And I'm Valko,” said Valko.

Maya was having a difficult time speaking just then, because in the light that spilled onto the landing, she had just caught a glimpse of Henri de Fourcroy's incredible eyes, which were not just blue, but purple, the purple
of the tall irises that sprang up every spring under the liquidambar trees back home in California, the purple
of grape juice, of felt pens, of make-believe jewels.

Once when her mother had taken her for a haircut, Maya had been paging through the glossy magazines in the waiting room and had come across a page filled with pictures of extraordinary eyes: blue-green, green-blue, violet, orange—incredible things! It turned out that if you wore contact lenses, you could have eyes any color you wanted, almost. Even pink or gold! Polka dots! And for one heady moment, Maya had dreamed of arriving at school with brilliant turquoise eyes, of being a different sort of Maya entirely, dazzling and mysterious. And then she had put that magazine down and forgotten all about it until now.

The eyes of the elegant young man at the door were exactly the sort of astonishing purple-violet-blue that people might pay money to wear, but Maya was absolutely sure they were real.

So that's why he had to wear those glasses
, she thought. Because passersby might stop and stare.

“The scientist's children!” said the man, and he stood back to let them through. “Of course! And now you say we are cousins? Well, what a surprise! How lovely to see you again! Come in!”

“Actually, I'm just a friend,” said Valko as he stepped over the threshold.

“Come in anyway,” said the man, and then he turned his purple eyes right on Maya and smiled slightly.

“How kind of you to come,” he said.

Maya handed him his letters without saying a word, and his eyes rested on her thoughtfully for a moment, almost as if he were seeing something in her she knew nothing about. And then he was focused again on James, who was, as usual, being delightful.

“Come sit down and explain yourselves,” said the purple-eyed man. Off the end of the long hall was a living room, with comfortable chairs and a fireplace. “There are little candies somewhere here. Ah, there they are. They have caramel in them, do you mind?”

James did not mind at all!

“Ask your sister to tell me why you count as cousins,” said the man to James in a playful sort of way, after everyone except Maya had eaten a couple of caramels.

“Tell him, Maya,” said James, turning for a moment to smile at her while his hand darted out for another sweet. “He's our uncle, right?”

“I'm sorry,” said Maya, her voice sounding to her as if it had stayed at the other end of the long hall. “We shouldn't be bothering you this way. I mean, we're probably not related at all. It was just the family tree—those Fourcroys.”

“A family tree with Fourcroys in it!” exclaimed the elegant young man with a smile. “But, you know, Fourcroys are very rare! I am practically the only one left, I do believe.”

“Except for the old man,” said James, confidingly. “Right?”

The purple eyes became very quick and sharp, for all that the face they were in held on to its warm and welcoming smile.

“What old man do you mean, Cousin?” said the elegant young man, and he flicked his eyes from James to Maya and back to James.

The one who takes no more deliveries from you!

But of course she couldn't say that. Indeed, she couldn't say much, not out loud. Her mouth wouldn't quite open, or it would open and the sound wouldn't come. She had wanted to ask all sorts of questions, about the Society he supposedly ran, about the bronze salamander downstairs that kept forgetting it should not be alive, about the old man with his opera sets and his Cabinet of Earths, but the words would not form themselves. Something wouldn't let her speak, not about any of that, not in this place.

It was a strange feeling, and she didn't like it very much. Especially with everybody turning to look at her, and her mouth opening and closing like a flustered fish.

“Maya, are you all right?” said Valko.

“A little dizzy, maybe,” said Maya. And alarmed. But she didn't want to admit to that for some reason, not here.

“There's a washroom near the door you came in by,” said the man kindly. “Why don't you go and splash your face?”

So that's what she did. It was all right to leave James for a moment, because Valko was right there. James would chatter, but Valko would watch out for him. And she did feel strange.

Maya walked back down the hall to the bathroom and splashed her face with cool water. It brought her back to herself, more or less. She found she was curious again. The layout of the apartment, for instance: That was strange. It seemed to stretch around the courtyard like an angular doughnut, because here was a hall heading away from the street, and she was sure there had been yet another hall peeking out from the door at the back of the living room. Through the doorways on the left came light from the street windows. She glanced into a couple of those rooms on her way back. Studies of some kind. A sweet smell. The second study had a great, old desk in the center of it, and on that desk there stood the strangest apparatus. She slipped through the door for a moment to take a closer look. The sweetness was stronger in here, not just sweet, but musky-sweet. A lovely smell.

There was a dark little bowl on the desk, with a candle burning in it. And suspended over the candle fire was another, smaller bowl, and in it, melting, was something translucent and gold, like honey, but harder than honey. And fragrant! From that slowly melting cake of gold, not two inches in diameter, came the heady, wonderful sweetness that filled the air of this room and had called her in. She was so lost in that perfume that when a bell suddenly rang—the door! it must be the front door!—she jumped and looked around herself in panic. She hadn't meant to sneak about like this, poking and prying. And now he would catch her at it! How awful.

Her uncle-cousin's footsteps went striding down the hall past the room where Maya found herself hiding.

A woman's voice at the door, a pleading voice. Maya couldn't make out all the words. Just
anbar
. That strange word again.
Anbar
, and something else that Maya couldn't hear. That she was sick—was that it? And her uncle-cousin was replying in his patient, pleasant way, perhaps saying that he was busy, perhaps telling her to come back some other time.

She considered hiding under the desk. No, that was ridiculous. And then she looked around the room again and noticed—the complexity of the wood paneling had tricked her eyes at first—that the room had another door, after all. Past the desk with its purring candle and the mysterious cake melting into some kind of slow honey was a door with a handle. Beside it, a little table with what must be two more of those cakes, only these were in tidy little red velvet cases. Looking like something familiar, like—but the noun slipped away when she groped for it.

She put her left hand on the doorknob. And as the door began to open, her right hand, without any warning at all, reached over to the little red cases of incense, or whatever it was, and whisked one deep into the pocket of her coat. She was through the door by the time her mind caught up with her hand, and then she had only time enough to catch her breath in surprise and close the door quietly behind her, because she was back in the living room at the end of the hall, and Valko and James had turned in their chairs to look over at her, and the footsteps of her uncle-cousin were already coming back in this direction down the hall.

“Oh, good, you're back!” said James when he saw her. “What took you so long? We're going to get our pictures taken!”

Indeed, the purple-eyed Fourcroy was now coming back through the door with the strangest old camera in his hands, like nothing Maya had ever seen, all bulbous with attachments and lenses and impossibly complicated meters.

“Are you recovered, little cousin-or-niece?” he asked Maya with great courtesy.

“Yes, yes,” said Maya. “I'm fine.”

But in fact she was restless. Itching to leave. The purple-eyed Fourcroy took no notice.

“We've agreed, James and I, that such a reunion of cousins, since it seems we may be cousins, should be documented. Do you mind? Hold steady, now.”

And he took a photograph right then and there, with Maya still half turned toward James's chair and Valko looking over in her direction as if he had something in particular to say. Some hidden machinery in the camera popped and whirred. The elegant young man set it down very carefully on the table and smiled.

“So!” he said.

“I've never seen a camera like
that
,” said James. “Wow!”

“Very old,” said the elegant young man. “An absolute antique. Have another caramel, won't you?”

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