Published by St. Martin’s Press

Prologue: The Fire

When the town saw the column of smoke rising from Radcliffe House and flocked across the hillside armed with buckets and shovels and axes and jangling lanterns that threw orange ovals of light and long shadows across Milton’s unruly lawn, they were much better prepared to save the mansion than they were to save Milton who, marble-white in the bracing night air, merely stared into the flames, still as a statue.

Sooty-faced miners, servants, farm hands, lanky gentlemen in greatcoats that flapped like bats as they ran, all came bumping over the dips and troughs, through the brush and heather, wild-eyed, steel-eyed, charged with fear and excitement and duty. Coaches thundered to a halt. Horses spooked and reared, others neighed, fretting this way and that, never keeping still, no matter how their riders addressed them with the reins. Some men took charge while others followed, some barked orders while others ran, leaped, formed a fire line from the mansion to the well, and a rotating team of swift young boys worked the pump furiously, the bang of it resounding through the clamor like rifle shots.

By the time the firemen ricocheted over the drive in their great brass behemoth and cleared a path through the tumult to string their canvas serpents to the fire, they had all the help they needed. Shovels heaped earth and men heaved buckets full of water and the canvas serpents belched forth jets that rose in clouds of steam, until the only clouds left rose from the patches of derelict flame, and from the glowing ashes slowly turning dormant, and the heavy plumes huffing from panting mouths as they all wound down to catch their breaths.

They looked at one another, perspiring in the cold night, and wondered,now that the fire was out, what to do with Milton.

Most everyone was speechless. A few stared hard at the smoking rafters, and shook their heads in pity. A few turned away and just shook their heads. A few spoke words of condolence to him, tossed tentatively, dubiously, but even these latter kept a critical distance from him, the way they might stand off a ways from an injured bird grounded in their backyard, or a cat, lost and cornered, for fear of startling it.

Milton never moved. He blinked into the last swirls of flames as two boys buried them with quick shovels, and he spoke briefly to someone, distantly, as if he didn’t hear his own words, then once again he turned to stone.