Clare Fitzgerald had seen so much in the twelve short years of her life that she could almost always guess what was going to happen next.
So when she came around the side of their new summer home and saw the strange glass house winking at her from the stand of trees at the foot of the yard, she was caught between two feelings. She knew the first one well: the annoyance of a seasoned traveler who is confronted by a cabaret that has just opened at an address where she expected to find a reputable bank, or a reputable bank that has just opened at the address of a former cabaret. The other feeling, just as strong, took her longer to name because it was so rare. But after a moment she admitted to herself that it might be wonder: a deep thrill of suspicion that, despite everything she and her mother had seen, they had not yet exhausted all the world’s mysteries and treasures.
At first glance, the glass house was a riot of reflections: sky and cloud, white brick, the pale underbellies of leaves. Then it resolved into a glass building held together by copper beams gone green from exposure to wind and rain. It sat about fifty paces from the big white brick house she and her mother were moving into that day. A stand of young maples shaded the glass walls, which were further screened by climbing roses that crept all the way up to the slanted panes of the roof.
As a rule, Clare preferred to take her pleasures in small doses, bit by bit, instead of gulping them down whole, as her mother did. Under normal circumstances, she might have circled the whole yard, surveyed the lay of the land, inspected the surrounding gardens, and taken the measure of the glass house from a dozen different vantage points before she made her approach. But sometimes life forced her to make exceptions. Today was one of them.
Clare had made her escape only a few minutes earlier, in the confusion surrounding the arrival at their new summer home. If she lingered too long now in any one place, her mother would almost certainly take her captive again. Clare didn’t know when she’d be able to get away next. And she’d never seen anything like the strange glass house glinting in the trees.
She glanced down briefly at the uncomfortable velvet and cardboard slippers her mother had insisted she wear on the train. Then she cut straight across the wide yard with the cheerful hope that they might suffer some mortal damage in the course of her explorations.
The back lawn rolled down from the substantial rise where the big white house was set. Clare wound her way toward the glass house between silver magnolias, waxy redbud, and disheveled lilacs, punctuated by stands of blue iris with lily of the valley massed at their feet.
When she reached the maple grove that sheltered the glass house, wind breathed softly through the young leaves overhead. Bits of pollen glowed in the air around her like tiny embers, then winked out as the light shifted. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the new shade and for her to realize that the glass house didn’t have corners like other buildings: it was an octagon with eight sides fastened together, so that the room it formed was more like a circle than a square. The evergreen leaves of the climbing roses were so thick that she couldn’t see anything inside: just tantalizing flashes of color blurred by the clouded glass.
Furthermore, it didn’t seem to have a door.
Clare started around one side, found nothing but wide panes covered with vines, then doubled back, and found nothing when she started around the other side. Her brow had begun to furrow with disbelief and frustration when, at the very back, perfectly opposite the big white house on the hill, she discovered a narrow pane of glass, about the height of a man, not so overgrown with vines as the rest. Unlike all the other glass, which was weather-stained but unmarked, this pane was etched with an oval pattern so intricate that Clare thought she saw half a dozen false letters in the crabbed loops and curls, although, when she looked closer, none of them resolved into actual words.
It took her only a moment longer to discover the handle of the door, half hidden by the same vines that curled over the mossy flagstone at her feet and met in a canopy over the green copper door frame.
The handle was copper green as well, more like a paddle than a knob. She turned it down to release the latch as she squinted to peer through her own reflection at the mysterious shapes inside.
The door didn’t budge.
She pulled the handle up. No luck.
Then she saw a small neat cut in the embellished metal below the handle: a keyhole.
The glass house was locked.
Frowning in concentration, Clare made another quick circle of the building, looking for a key box or a hiding rock or even a stray garden fork with tines long enough to tease the lock open. When she didn’t find any of these, she settled on a short hardwood twig, about the same size as a bone from her hand. She hunched under the handle and fiddled the twig this way and that, listening for the telltale click of the mechanism as it swung free, a trick she had learned a few summers before when her mother had befriended the ship’s detective on a trip across the Atlantic.
He was a pale, gangly scholar with a boy’s face and prematurely gray hair who had been given the job of detective by his uncle, a member of the shipping company’s board, due to his complete unsuitability for any other work. He’d spent the voyage under the misconception that Clare found his responsibilities as a detective boring while her mother found them fascinating: an almost perfect inversion of the truth. So the young detective would only speak to Clare’s mother about his work when he believed Clare was asleep. As a result, Clare had spent the week feigning sleeping fits on the lounge chairs of the second deck, listening with rapt attention as he regaled her mother with the exploits and methods of the modern bank robber, jewel thief, and bootlegger, all adventures he’d culled from various publications on the topics and not from personal experience, which he spent the bulk of his formidable intelligence trying to avoid. But despite Clare’s long tutelage on those bright afternoons, the lock on the door to the glass house held fast.
Clare dropped the twig into the glossy myrtle that hid the roots of the roses, cupped her hands around her eyes, and pressed her face to the etched glass.
Inside, the vines cast gnarled shadows over a confusion of furniture arranged on an assortment of overlapping oriental rugs, which produced a visual effect so jumbled that for a moment Clare couldn’t tell where anything began and anything else ended. The sun, with no interference from shutters or drapes, had taken its toll on all the fabrics, brightening some, erasing others. Now, at full noon, it made the whites blaze. Piercing glints shot from the domed case of an anniversary clock and the tarnished surface of a silver vase. Then a hodgepodge of mismatched, castaway pieces began to fall into place: a pair of mulberry leather smoking chairs. A delicate sea-green divan with a back that swelled up over the curve of the seat like a wave about to crash on the beach. A low table with several mysterious drawers. A buffet crowned by the anniversary clock and vase, along with an assortment of books and candlestic...