The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 10

  Now Mr. Benedict was gone, perhaps never to be seen again, and Constance found herself anguishing over his disappearance as much for what he had not been to her as for what he had. What Mr. Benedict had been was Constance’s affectionate guardian and emotional anchor. What he had not been was her father — not yet, at least, and Constance keenly felt the lack. She could never express why this was so, not even to herself, but she had long believed that becoming Mr. Benedict’s adopted daughter would transform her world, would make her something other than a lost and wandering oddity of a girl. Now she may well have lost her chance.

  As it often did, this line of thinking brought to Constance’s mind a particular early morning discussion that had occurred a few months prior. The memory was quite vivid, not least for how it began, with Mr. Benedict and Number Two entering the dining room just as Constance was sleepily finishing her cereal. Their appearance made for a striking combination of green, yellow, and red — Mr. Benedict wore his green plaid suit as usual; and Number Two’s rusty red hair was set off, also as usual, by a yellow outfit — and to Constance’s bleary eyes the two of them together looked like a traffic light painted by Picasso.

  “I don’t even like Picasso,” she muttered by way of greeting.

  “Good morning to you, too!” Mr. Benedict said as Number Two began to lay out a variety of charts and folders.

  “Not again,” Constance protested. “It’s too early.” She didn’t feel like speaking yet, much less submitting to another of Mr. Benedict’s curious exercises. He’d given her some kind of odd task almost every day since she’d moved in.

  Mr. Benedict grinned and slid his hands into the pockets of his suit jacket. “I’m afraid now is the best time, my dear.”

  “I’m eating breakfast.”

  “Your cereal bowl is empty,” Number Two pointed out. “There’s only milk left.”

  Constance wanted to argue with this, but finding she could not she said, “Why do I have to keep doing these exercises, anyway? Is there some stupid law that requires it?”

  “Forgive me, I thought we’d discussed this,” said Mr. Benedict, feigning surprise, for of course they had discussed this before, and more than once. He took a seat at the table, and then — only then — the watchful Number Two sat down. Looking a bit faint, she took a handful of almonds from her pocket and popped them into her mouth.

  “As your unofficial guardian,” said Mr. Benedict, “I consider myself responsible for your education. That is the reason for all these tiresome exercises. Legally we’re obligated to do nothing. The law does not yet figure in.”

  “Because I’m not legally adopted yet?” Constance said.

  “That’s part of it,” said Mr. Benedict. “It’s actually rather complicated.”

  Constance looked away. She had never openly expressed any special desire to be adopted by Mr. Benedict, and she always felt embarrassed to discuss it. Her impatience was finally winning out over her embarrassment, however. She happened to know that Reynie’s adoption by Miss Perumal had been made official two months ago, but for some reason her own situation hadn’t changed, and Constance had begun to suspect that Mr. Benedict was reconsidering. “What do you mean by ‘complicated,’ exactly?” she asked, trying to sound casual. “I mean, why haven’t I been adopted yet?”

  Running a hand through his rumpled white hair (which as usual looked as though it had been groomed with a toothless comb), Mr. Benedict sighed and said, “Technicalities, Constance. You see, according to official records, you do not exist. Oh, I know you probably think you do — and I, for one, agree — but officially you do not. My challenge, then, is to prove your existence to the proper authorities, who apparently are unconvinced by the actual fact of your living, breathing body. Perhaps this is because there is so little of you to offer as evidence. I can’t say for sure.”

  Here Mr. Benedict paused, searching Constance’s expression for signs of mirth. They often enjoyed jokes no one else found funny, and Mr. Benedict tended to use humor to defuse Constance’s explosive moods. But this time she only frowned, and Mr. Benedict cleared his throat and quickly continued. “At any rate, the authorities wish to see official paperwork — paperwork which, like yourself, appears not to exist. So you see we face certain obstacles. I’m confident, however, that once your existence has been established, the adoption process will go smoothly. In the meantime, you should consider yourself part of this family whether the law does or not.”

  But this did not satisfy Constance at all. “What about the Whisperer?”

  Mr. Benedict raised an eyebrow. “The Whisperer?”

  “You can use it on me to figure out where I came from! You redesigned it so it can retrieve memories, right? So do that with me! We can find out where I was born, who my parents were —”

  Mr. Benedict shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t do that right now.”

  Constance was growing extremely agitated. “Why? Because the officials won’t let you? What about hypnosis, then? Milligan said you’re good at it. So hypnotize me! We could find out . . . we could really find out . . .”

  She trailed off, discouraged by Mr. Benedict’s expression. She could tell he was going to refuse her. She could also tell he hated to do so, but her impatience prevented her from focusing on this, and she crossed her arms and glared at him. Number Two was looking back and forth between them, shifting uneasily in her seat and trying to chew her almonds without making too much noise.

  “Constance,” Mr. Benedict said gently, “I have doubts about whether hypnosis — or even the Whisperer — would work in your case. The minds of most two-year-olds are incapable of creating long-term memories. They simply haven’t developed enough yet. Most people remember nothing about their toddler years.”

  “I’m three and a half,” Constance said indignantly, “and besides, my mind is hardly typical. Isn’t that the point of all these stupid exercises?”

  “You were two when you came to me,” Mr. Benedict reminded her. “And yes, it’s possible your gifts reflect development that would enable you — with assistance — to recall your past. But I don’t believe you’re prepared for what you might learn. In fact I cannot allow it. There is every indication, Constance, that whatever circumstances led you to find yourself alone at such a young age will be traumatic for you to remember. When you’re older, perhaps. At the moment I feel compelled to protect you from any such trauma. You and your friends have been through quite enough already, and lest you forget, you are still very young indeed.”

  “Fine, so you can’t adopt me, and you won’t do anything to make it happen,” Constance growled. She felt deeply wounded. “Sorry I brought it up. Let’s just get on with your dumb tests.”

  “Look at me, Constance,” Mr. Benedict said.

  Constance averted her eyes.

  “My dear,” said Mr. Benedict softly, almost in a whisper, “one of your gifts is abundantly clear to me, if not to yourself, and I am going to help you call upon it now. I wouldn’t ask it of you if it weren’t important, for I know very well how unnerving you find all this. It is important, though. So please, Constance. Look at me.”

  Partly out of curiosity, and partly because she loved Mr. Benedict even though she was furious with him, Constance looked up. Mr. Benedict had removed his spectacles and was looking steadily at her with his bright green eyes. Constance’s first reaction was to wonder if he was about to fall asleep; her second was to wonder why she’d wondered that.

  “You often pretend not to know certain things,” said Mr. Benedict, “because you don’t see how you possibly could know them, and this disturbs you. But you do know things, Constance, and right now I want you to pay attention to that fact. When you looked up at me just now, I saw a question in your eyes. You formed an opinion, did you not, about what I was feeling or thinking?”

  “I wondered if you were about to fall asleep,” Constance murmured, “but I didn’t know why I thought that.”

  Mr. Benedict smiled. “No doubt you noticed
something familiar about my expression — something others wouldn’t see. Leaving aside explanations for now, let us focus on one thing only, which is that you can know things if only you’ll allow yourself. Can you agree to do that? Just for a moment?”

  Constance hesitated, then nodded. “I’m not sure what you mean . . . but fine, I’ll try.”

  “Thank you,” said Mr. Benedict. “While I have your complete attention, then, I’ll speak frankly. I have something I want to say to you, and I want you to keep looking at me as I say it. Are you ready?”

  Constance braced herself. Her heart was skipping inside her chest, for she had no idea what was coming. “I’m ready.”

  “Then what I want to say is this: Every person in this family loves you. Rhonda loves you, Number Two loves you, and I love you. We already consider you as much a part of our family as any of us, and we would do anything — no, we will do anything —”

  Mr. Benedict’s eyes closed before he could finish his sentence, and he slumped forward onto the table, upsetting Constance’s cereal bowl and spilling milk onto the folders and charts.

  “Oh dear,” Number Two said, hastening to soak up the spill with her shirt sleeve before it ran into Mr. Benedict’s hair. “I should have seen that coming.”

  Constance was blinking in amazement — because she had seen it coming. Just before Mr. Benedict fell asleep, the thought “Here he goes now” had flashed into her mind. Mr. Benedict was right. She could know certain things . . .

  “I hope you realize he meant it,” said Number Two. Despite her brusque tone — or perhaps because of it — Constance could tell she’d been touched by Mr. Benedict’s words.

  “I do,” said Constance, recalling the feeling of certainty she’d had while Mr. Benedict was speaking. “At least . . . I mean, I think I do.”

  “Good. You should. And now for heaven’s sake, are you going to help me clean this up or do you mean to just sit there and watch?”

  Constance slowly broke into a grin — she was feeling very happy all of a sudden — and said exactly what Number Two had expected her to say, which was that she did indeed mean to just sit there and watch.

  Lying in her bunk in the Shortcut, remembering the events of that morning, Constance felt every bit as sad now as she had felt happy then. She had no idea where she came from and no idea where she might be headed. In what little she could remember of her life, the only constant thing — the thing she depended on above all — had been Mr. Benedict’s presence. And now she had lost even that. Constance sniffled as quietly as she could.

  Reynie knelt beside her bunk. “They’re going to be all right.”

  “How do you know?” said Constance, rubbing her stinging eyes. “How do you know that awful man hasn’t already done terrible things to them? How do you know they’re not . . . not . . .”

  “I just do,” Reynie said, and Constance realized that he was speaking with a conviction he didn’t actually feel. But it was something, anyway, to hold onto, and she gazed at him with as much hopefulness as she could muster.

  “I just do,” Reynie said again, and both of them hoped with all their hearts that he was right.

  The Significance of Weather

  The hours crawled by as the children waited for Captain Noland. With the exception of one brief spell during which Cannonball thought it safe to allow them on deck (it was raining and the company owners were all below), they’d spent the entire time confined to their cramped quarters. Nor had their appearance on deck, during which they were compelled to hold a tarpaulin over their heads to keep the rain off, proved to be anything like a pleasant diversion. At least it hadn’t lasted long: there’d been time enough for Constance to compose a rhyming complaint about bullfrogs and tarp hogs (by which she meant the boys, whom she accused of crowding her); time enough for the boys to observe how much more miserable a cold wet night could be made by a poetic companion in a foul mood; and time enough for Kate to summon Madge from the bridge tower and smuggle her down to Cannonball’s cabin (a courtesy Cannonball insisted upon, since their own cabin was so crowded) — but all of this took less than five minutes. Afterward the children had retreated belowdecks, and since then had done nothing but wait.

  Constance had finally given up and dozed off, while in the bunk above her, Sticky sat with his feet dangling over the edge, absently rubbing his scalp (which had begun to feel sandpapery with new stubble) and expounding — rather too loudly and at great length — upon modern ocean vessels. Initially Sticky had limited his speech to what he’d read in the newspapers about the Shortcut, but once he’d exhausted that topic he had expanded to include all things nautical.

  Reynie lay in the other top bunk, propped on an elbow, thinking less about structural innovations than about his friend’s recent tendency to show off. It used to be that Sticky couldn’t bear to be looked at or listened to. Now it seemed the opposite was true, and the effect was more than a little tiresome. Even a naturally curious person like Reynie disliked hearing lectures that hadn’t been asked for. Reynie yawned and stretched — then glanced down at Kate, wondering how she was bearing up. Kate was as good-natured as could be, but she’d also been cooped up for hours. She was sitting on the floor with her legs elaborately crossed and intertwined (in what for most people would be an excruciating position), making sure her bucket’s contents were properly secured. By Reynie’s count she’d done this five times already, and he suspected she was tolerating Sticky’s speech by ignoring it.

  At that very moment, however, the speech drew to a sudden, unexpected close, and Sticky — mumbling something indistinct about having a rest — turned onto his side to face the bulkhead. He was burning with embarrassment, for it had just sunk in to him how long he’d been talking and how pompous he must have sounded.

  Sticky would have found such behavior distasteful in another person, and indeed it was a far cry from how he used to act. Lately, though, he couldn’t seem to help himself. It was hard to resist the pleasure he felt when others were impressed by him — and they did so often seem impressed. (Cannonball’s exuberant demonstrations of approval, for instance, had made Sticky feel positively rapturous.) And yet, when his efforts fell flat — when he bored people to death or, worse, when he was proven wrong — he either flew out in anger or withered in humiliation. He envied Reynie’s calm, imperturbable manner, to say nothing of Kate’s unshakable bravado and good cheer. Even Constance inspired some jealousy, for at least she had an excuse for her behavior. Sticky covered his face with his pillow. Was he really jealous of a three-year-old? There must be something seriously wrong with him.

  There wasn’t anything seriously wrong with Sticky, though. The truth, which Sticky didn’t quite understand, was that pride was a new feeling for him — something he’d rarely experienced before last year’s mission — and it was simply taking some getting used to.

  “Look who’s awake,” said Reynie, who had noticed Constance blinking her eyes and looking around with a disturbed expression. “It’s okay, Constance. You dozed —”

  “Someone’s coming!” Constance hissed. Her tone was so unnerving that Reynie and Sticky sat bolt upright, and Kate sprang up into a defensive crouch.

  “Easy, Constance,” Reynie said, his heart racing. “You must have been dreaming. You’re safe here with —”

  A knock sounded at the door. They all froze.

  “Hello?” a man’s voice called. It was Captain Noland.

  Kate looked wonderingly at Constance. “How did you . . . ? Never mind, we’ll talk about it later.” She opened the door.

  Captain Noland stood in the passage holding a small chest. His face was drawn with fatigue, but he gave the children a friendly smile as he came in. “Well, my friends, I regret the circumstances — I’d hoped to entertain you in my own cabin — but regardless, I’m pleased to join you at last. How are you enjoying the Shortcut? She’s a mighty fast ship, isn’t she?”

  As the children responded with polite enthusiasm, the captain knelt to ope
n the chest. It was tidily packed with a miniature folding table, a serving tray, a coffee pot and coffee cups, a bottle of cream, and two tins of sweets. Captain Noland set up the table and laid out the treats, and Reynie and Sticky climbed down from their top bunks, taking care not to upset the little table, for there was scarcely room on the floor now to step. Indeed, when all four children were seated on the two lower bunks, their knees pressed against the table’s edge, and their feet were awkwardly intermingled below. Keeping his elbows close to his side, Captain Noland smiled apologetically and handed each of them a cup. “So long as no one moves very much, I believe we’ll be fine. Ever had navy coffee?”

  “What is it?” asked Kate, eyeing the pitch-black liquid in the pot with suspicion.

  “It’s brewed with a pinch of salt in the grounds,” Sticky answered. “The salt’s supposed to cut the bitterness.”

  “So you’re familiar with it!” said Captain Noland with an approving look at Sticky. With careful movements he filled the cups, including one for himself. “Don’t worry, Kate, you can’t actually taste the salt. Just good, strong coffee.” The children took turns stirring cream into their cups, and the captain leaned against the cabin door and waited politely. When at last they were ready, he toasted their health — as if they were drinking champagne rather than coffee — then closed his eyes and took a long, slow sip, obviously savoring it.

  Reynie drank from his own cup and almost choked. It was hard to say whether the coffee tasted more like gasoline or cough syrup. Luckily Captain Noland still had his eyes closed and didn’t see Reynie grimace as he forced the foul stuff down. He shot a warning look at the others (it was too late for Kate, who was trying to twist her horrified expression into something that resembled a smile) and in a slightly strangled voice said, “So you were in the navy, Captain?”