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'That's the smell of summer nights in New Orleans,' he answered. 'Of walking alone, and whistling, and beating the iron pickets with a twig.' She loved the deep vibration of his voice coming from his chest. 'That's the smell of walking all through these streets.'

'Rowan, let me get you away from here,' he said. 'We should have left before. This is my fault.'

'No, it doesn't matter, leaving here,' she whispered. 'I like it here. It doesn't matter where I go, so why not stay here where it's dark and quiet and beautiful?'

A rank green smell rose, like the smell of a swamp, and Rowan realized that she was looking out at a long pool of water. They stood on the flagstone lip of this great black pool. It was so heavily overgrown that the surface of the water showed only in dim flashes. The water lilies gleamed boldly in the faintest light from the far-off sky. Insects hummed thickly and invisibly. The frogs sang, and things stirred the water so that the light skittered on the surface suddenly, even deep among the high weeds. There came a busy trickling sound as though the pond were fed by fountains, and when she narrowed her eyes, she saw the spouts, pouring forth their thin sparkling streams.

They turned and walked deeper into the garden, finding the flags in spite of the weeds that pressed against them, and the bananas that grew so thick and low that the great bladelike leaves brushed their faces.

A rank green smell rose, like the smell of a swamp, and Rowan realized that she was looking out at a long pool of water. They stood on the flagstone lip of this great black pool. It was so heavily overgrown that the surface of the water showed only in dim flashes. The water lilies gleamed boldly in the faintest light from the far-off sky. Insects hummed thickly and invisibly. The frogs sang, and things stirred the water so that the light skittered on the surface suddenly, even deep among the high weeds. There came a busy trickling sound as though the pond were fed by fountains, and when she narrowed her eyes, she saw the spouts, pouring forth their thin sparkling streams.

'That's the smell of summer nights in New Orleans,' he answered. 'Of walking alone, and whistling, and beating the iron pickets with a twig.' She loved the deep vibration of his voice coming from his chest. 'That's the smell of walking all through these streets.'

The frogs were singing here, that loud grinding woodland song, and far away a bird cried in the night. Impossible to believe that streets lay near at hand, and that people lived beyond the trees, that the distant tiny yellow lights twinkling here and there through the glossy leaves were the lights of other people's houses.

'I've loved it ever since I was a kid,' he said. 'I loved it when I saw it two nights ago. I love it now even though I know all kinds of things that happened in it, even what happened to that guy in the attic. I love it because it's your house. And because... because it's beautiful no matter what anybody has done in it, or to it. It was beautiful when it was built. It will be beautiful a hundred years from now.'

How sad he sounded. It was as if he had seen something confirmed that he did not quite believe. And to think how that name had struck her when Ellie said it in the final weeks of fever and delirium. 'Stella in the coffin.'

This long day in the balmy tropical city of old-fashioned courtesies and rituals had merely been the first unfolding. Even the secrets of the old woman were the mere beginning.

They turned and walked deeper into the garden, finding the flags in spite of the weeds that pressed against them, and the bananas that grew so thick and low that the great bladelike leaves brushed their faces.

A rank green smell rose, like the smell of a swamp, and Rowan realized that she was looking out at a long pool of water. They stood on the flagstone lip of this great black pool. It was so heavily overgrown that the surface of the water showed only in dim flashes. The water lilies gleamed boldly in the faintest light from the far-off sky. Insects hummed thickly and invisibly. The frogs sang, and things stirred the water so that the light skittered on the surface suddenly, even deep among the high weeds. There came a busy trickling sound as though the pond were fed by fountains, and when she narrowed her eyes, she saw the spouts, pouring forth their thin sparkling streams.

'I love you, Michael,' she whispered. 'I do. I love you.'

'What is it, darlin'?' he asked. A low rumble from his chest.

'I love you, Michael,' she whispered. 'I do. I love you.'

He put his arm around her again, and she clung to him, nestling against him, and feeling him kiss her hair again. His gloved fingers touched her cheek. She wanted to rip off the gloves. But she didn't say so.

She looked straight up at the pale sky and its few scattered yet vivid stars, and then the memory of the old woman came back again, and it was like the evil cloud wouldn't let go of her. She thought of the look on the old woman's face as she'd died. She thought of the words. And the face of her mother in the casket, slumbering forever on white satin.

She pressed her face against his shirt. She started to shiver as she had been doing on and off all night, and when she felt his arms come down tighter and almost hard, she loved it.

'That's the smell of summer nights in New Orleans,' he answered. 'Of walking alone, and whistling, and beating the iron pickets with a twig.' She loved the deep vibration of his voice coming from his chest. 'That's the smell of walking all through these streets.'

'No, it doesn't matter, leaving here,' she whispered. 'I like it here. It doesn't matter where I go, so why not stay here where it's dark and quiet and beautiful?'

A rank green smell rose, like the smell of a swamp, and Rowan realized that she was looking out at a long pool of water. They stood on the flagstone lip of this great black pool. It was so heavily overgrown that the surface of the water showed only in dim flashes. The water lilies gleamed boldly in the faintest light from the far-off sky. Insects hummed thickly and invisibly. The frogs sang, and things stirred the water so that the light skittered on the surface suddenly, even deep among the high weeds. There came a busy trickling sound as though the pond were fed by fountains, and when she narrowed her eyes, she saw the spouts, pouring forth their thin sparkling streams.

He looked down at her, struggling to make out her face, it seemed. 'Rowan, whatever happens, don't let this house go. Even if you have to go away from it and never see it again, even if you come to hate it. Don't let it go. Don't let it ever fall into the hands of anyone who wouldn't love it. It's too beautiful. It has to survive all this, just as we do.'

She pressed her face against his shirt. She started to shiver as she had been doing on and off all night, and when she felt his arms come down tighter and almost hard, she loved it.

'You know, it's a funny thing,' he said. 'In all my years in California, I worked on many a house. And I loved them all. But none of them ever made me feel my mortality. They never made me feel small. This house makes me feel that. It makes me feel it because it is going to be here when I'm gone.'

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