“I had to. He’d practically worked it out for himself, anyway.”
Hugh seemed taken aback for a moment but then turned and gave me a resolute handshake. “Then welcome to the family.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just said, “Thanks.”
On the way to the house, we gleaned sketchy bits of information from Hugh about what had happened, but mostly we just ran. When we stopped in the woods to catch our breath, he said, “It’s one of the Bird’s ymbryne friends. She winged in an hour ago in a terrible state, yelling blue murder and rousing everyone from their beds. Before we could understand what she was getting at she fainted dead off.” He wrung his hands, looking miserable. “Oh, I just know something wicked’s happened.”
“I hope you’re wrong,” said Emma, and we ran on.
* * *
In the hall just outside the sitting room’s closed door, children in rumpled nightclothes huddled around a kerosene lantern, trading rumors about what might have happened.
“Perhaps they forgot to reset their loop,” said Claire.
“Bet you it was hollows,” Enoch said. “Bet they ate the lot of ’em too, right down to their boots!”
Claire and Olive wailed and clapped their little hands over their faces. Horace knelt beside them and said in a comforting voice, “There, there. Don’t let Enoch fill your heads with rubbish. Everyone knows hollows like young ones best. That’s why they let Miss Peregrine’s friend go—she tastes like old coffee grounds!”
Olive peeked out from between her fingers. “What do young ones taste like?”
“Lingonberries,” he said matter-of-factly. The girls wailed again.
“Leave them alone!” Hugh shouted, and a squadron of bees sent Horace yelping down the hall.
“What’s going on out there?” Miss Peregrine called from inside the sitting room. “Is that Mr. Apiston I hear? Where are Miss Bloom and Mr. Portman?”
Emma cringed and shot Hugh a nervous look. “She knows?”
“When she found out you were gone, she just about went off her chump. Thought you’d been abducted by wights or some barminess. Sorry, Em. I had to tell her.”
Emma shook her head, but all we could do was go in and face the music. Fiona gave us a little salute—as if to wish us luck—and we opened the doors.
Inside the sitting room, the only light was a hearth fire that threw our quivering shadows against the wall. Bronwyn hovered anxiously around an old woman who was teetering half-conscious in a chair, mummied up in a blanket. Miss Peregrine sat on an ottoman, feeding the woman spoonfuls of dark liquid.
When Emma saw her face, she froze. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “It’s Miss Avocet.”
Only then did I recognize her, though just barely, from the photograph Miss Peregrine had shown me of herself as a young girl. Miss Avocet had seemed so indomitable then, but now she looked frail and weak.
As we stood watching, Miss Peregrine brought a silver flask to Miss Avocet’s lips and tipped it, and for a moment the elder ymbryne seemed to revive, sitting forward with brightening eyes. But then her expression dulled again and she sank back into the chair.
“Miss Bruntley,” said Miss Peregrine to Bronwyn, “go and make up the fainting couch for Miss Avocet and then fetch a bottle of coca wine and another flask of brandy.”
Bronwyn trooped out, nodding solemnly as they passed. Next Miss Peregrine turned to us and said in a low voice, “I am tremendously disappointed in you, Miss Bloom. Tremendously. And of all the nights to sneak away.”
“I’m sorry, Miss. But how was I to know something bad would happen?”
“I should punish you. However, given the circumstances, it hardly seems worth the effort.” She raised a hand and smoothed her mentor’s white hair. “Miss Avocet would never have left her wards to come here unless something dire had taken place.”
The roaring fire made beads of sweat break out on my forehead, but in her chair Miss Avocet lay shivering. Would she die? Was the tragic scene that had played out between my grandfather and me about to play out again, this time between Miss Peregrine and her teacher? I pictured it: me holding my grandfather’s body, terrified and confused, never suspecting the truth about him or myself. What was happening now, I decided, was nothing like what had happened to me. Miss Peregrine had always known who she was.
It hardly seemed like the time to bring it up, but I was angry and couldn’t help myself. “Miss Peregrine?” I began, and she looked up. “When were you going to tell me?”
She was about to ask what, but then her eyes went to Emma, and she seemed to read the answer on her face. For a moment she looked mad, but then she saw my anger, and her own faded. “Soon, lad. Please understand. To have laid the entire truth upon you at our first meeting would have been an awful shock. Your behavior was unpredictable. You might’ve fled, never to return. I could not take that risk.”
“So instead you tried to seduce me with food and fun and girls while keeping all the bad things a secret?”
Emma gasped. “Seduce? Oh, please, don’t think that of me, Jacob. I couldn’t bear it.”
“I fear you’ve badly misjudged us,” said Miss Peregrine. “As for seducing you, what you’ve seen is how we live. There has been no deception, only the withholding of a few facts.”
“Well here’s a fact for you,” I said. “One of those creatures killed my grandfather.”
Miss Peregrine stared at the fire for a moment. “I am very sorry to hear that.”
“I saw one with my own eyes. When I told people about it, they tried to convince me I was crazy. But I wasn’t, and neither was my grandfather. His whole life he’d been telling me the truth, and I didn’t believe him.” Shame flooded over me. “If I had, maybe he’d still be alive.”
Miss Peregrine saw that I was wobbling and offered me the chair across from Miss Avocet.
I sate, and Emma knelt down beside me. “Abe must’ve known you were peculiar,” she said. “And he must’ve had a good reason for not telling you.”
“He did indeed know,” replied Miss Peregrine. “He said as much in a letter.”
“I don’t understand, then. If it was all true—all his stories—and if he knew I was like him, why did he keep it a secret until the last minute of his life?”
Miss Peregrine spoon-fed more brandy to Miss Avocet, who groaned and sat up a little before settling back into the chair. “I can only imagine that he wanted to protect you,” she said. “Ours can be a life of trials and deprivations. Abe’s life was doubly so because he was born a Jew in the worst of times. He faced a double genocide, of Jews by the Nazis and of peculiars by the hollowgast. He was tormented by the idea that he was hiding here while his people, both Jews and peculiars, were being slaughtered.”