Reverend grimaced. Nans death, which-- Lutwidges handbills
and advertisements having so far yielded nothing--he had come to accept
as a slightly less painful alternative to a lifetime of wondering, of
hoping and pining, had indeed changed him, leaving him a numb and cynical
observer of humanity. The corpse in the bed, the petty crook tearing the
ring off its swollen knuckle, the imminent arrival of thugs who might
well beat him for information he did not possess, all this seemed in harmony
with his new, bitter outlook. No, Tom. No word of Nan.
Maybe you had
better come with me, Reverend, the little man suggested.
They will be
asking you questions. He motioned to the corpse, whose hand, after
Toms exertions, once again dangled against the rough wood floor.
Asking you who his friends
were and such.
I have no idea.
He was not even a parishioner. I was summoned--
They will be wanting names. And that collar of yours may not be worth
as much as you think.
I will take
my chances, the Reverend said.
Not with my
neck, you wont.
He took out a knife
and held it to Belchers throat. The Reverend did not move, merely
frowned down at the short, blunt blade, the kind of instrument with which
one opened oysters.
Come along now,
Reverend, wont you? Old Tom urged. I dont want
to be doing violence to you.
They walked downhill,
the streets steeper and steeper, narrower too. Belcher had thought he
was a slum priest, that his parish held the worst of citizens, the poorest
of conditions, but, he had to admit, as Old Tom trooped stolidly behind
him, keeping the stubby knife at his belt, giving the occasional order
to turn left or right, this was a worse part of the city. The river was
near. He could smell it. Puddles kept appearing as the drains backed up.
There was an air not just of despair, but otherworldliness, of being beyond
the ordinary rule of law and nature. He stepped over debris that seemed
to have been strewn deliberately across the road, makeshift barricades,
and stooped low as the sign for a pub swung ominously off one remaining
Old Tom indicated, nodding to a stairway Belcher would not have even seen.
He cleared away some crates to begin a pitch-black, creaking climb.
Are you going
to rob me, Tom? he asked, keeping his face forward, straining his
eyes, his hands continuing to feel for a bannister that did not exist.
Tom chuckled. Thats rich.
I have got some
money on me, Belcher said defensively.
Oh, no doubt.
And I will be taking candies from little girls next. Here.
But there is
A door opened. Belcher
put up his hands as if to ward off a blow.
a voice asked.
He was there,
Tom said. Belcher immediately noted a change in his tone. He had gone
back to the obsequious, wheedling personality of the little man who kept
his trousers up with string, who curled under church pews and prayed only
not to be noticed.
So you brought
him here? the voice asked in disbelief. It was broad and northern.
What is that, man, a head on your shoulders or a ball of suet?
He saw me,
Tom whined. And the men was coming, for the body. Theyd be
adjusted to the light. The room before him was surprisingly well-appointed,
not at all in keeping with its surroundings. A wine-colored carpet, a
low-hanging lamp, its panes of glass clean and unbroken, upholstered furniture
and a round table with a beaded fringe. A decanter of whiskey and a bottle
of soda water stood with some tumblers on a sideboard. It could be, he
imagined, the drawing room of a respectable bordello, if there were such
institutions. And there probably are, he smiled. He
felt no fear. There were fifteen or twenty men.
Good Lord, a
priest, one of them said.
Timothy Belcher. He straightened his collar, wondering if the knife
was still at his back. From the parish of Saint Eustace.
another asked. Up Seven Dials way?
What a dreary
Unthinkingly he agreed,
hoping Tom, his kidnapper and possible murderer, would not convey these
sentiments to Mrs. Eblebowle or any other members of the Flower Committee.
You get it?
the apparent leader asked. He was a huge man with outlandish clothes and
Tom reached into his
pocket and handed over the dead mans ring.
I had to bring
him, he stated again. I didnt want--
Never mind that
now. Get downstairs.
But what about--?
Leave him here.
The giant looked at Belchers collar, amused. We cant
entertain no man of the cloth without offering him a proper drink, now
can we? Make yourself comfortable, sir. Godfrey Egans the name.
Pleased to meet
you, the Reverend murmured, feeling his hand, suddenly minuscule,
taken up and then dropped.
Another of the circle vacated his chair.
By comparison, the
rest were nondescript, Belcher decided, having time to study the group,
as he was handed a glass. Or rather they were too descript, all dressed
as types, like members of a repertory company. Some were plain and seedy,
some flashy, like male peacocks, while others could pass for bankers or
elderly abstemious wine merchants. There was even a plump, effeminate,
rosy-cheeked man Belcher could easily imagine celebrating Mass at the
church down the road (for this is how Anglican clergymen still referred
to their elder brethren.)
Here it is,
Egan announced, holding up the ring.
He looked across the
room to a man in a dark suit with a quiet, intelligent, deferential expression.
Like a parliamentary secretary, Belcher thought, amusing himself by assigning
each a profession. The smooth type who stood just behind his Minister
and passed forward notes containing the answers to Questions.
Since we got a represent-ta-tive--Egan pronounced the word carefully--of God on earth, here in our very rooms, perhaps we should do it proper. You got a bible on you
I have a waterproof
edition of the Gospel, Belcher qualified.
do. Now Jack, put your hand on the scripture.
The others turned,
still at their ease, but staring intently. The initiate put one hand on
the small, leather cover and held up the other.
Do you swear,
Egan asked, to knock down the rotten props of society, to destroy
all so-called institutions, to raze all class distinctions, so the mighty
are brought down level with the poor and helpless? Do you swear to help
build in its place a true anarchist paradise?
the other said.
Very well, then. Steel in your heart, steel in your soul...and now steel on your finger.
Welcome, Brother Pierce!
Lady Tabitha woke
the next day expecting to feel awful, full of remorse, soiled and sick,
but discovered instead the sun shining and her mind curiously clear. There
was a buoyancy to her step and a sharpness to her gaze as if a storm had
passed and blown the fetid atmosphere of the previous night straight out
to sea. The floor was freshly waxed, the walls newly painted, the linen
crisp. Instead of burying her face in the pillow with shame she splashed
cold water on her features and was pleased to see herself looking as pretty
It was clear to her
that she loved Lutwidge Finch.
I will tell him, she
resolved. I will go to him now and explain.
We are going
to the fair! Miss Ethyl announced triumphantly.
Lady Tabitha winced.
They were the first words she had heard out loud today. Each syllable
struck her ear like a tiny hammer. Did I drink wine last night? she wondered.
No. That was the only sin she had not indulged in. Or had not tried indulging
in, rather. She raised her trembling reflection to her lips.
The Earl and
I are going, Miss Ethyl elaborated. He says there is some
competition he wishes to see. You are not eating? You will lose your color,
Have you ever
been in love? Miss Ethyl asked, staring meditatively at a whole
sausage speared on the end of her fork.
Lady Tabitha managed
to noiselessly return her cup to its saucer.
she echoed dully, not wishing to discover her private feelings. No.
I suppose not.
I wonder what
it is like, the young woman sighed.
My own age, Tabitha reminded herself, yet somehow she seems still so much a girl.
Does that make me
a woman? Or merely caught in some awful inbetween-time that goes on and
I should think
you only realize later you are in love, Tabitha said. That
you look back, from the opposite shore, as it were, and say, Here is where
I fell in love. But at the time... She trailed off, not sure herself
what she was saying.
Are you better?
Miss Ethyl asked.
You went up
early last night. With a headache.
Oh yes. Quite
better now, thank you. All cured.
The thing is,
she resumed, putting the sausage down, as if it had failed some test,
if you do not know what love is, then how do you know you are in
It is a leap,
Lady Tabitha agreed, and felt for a fleeting instant a kinship with this
awkward, rather irritating woman. Not so different from myself, she philosophized,
in predicament if not temperament.
The moment was cut
short by the arrival of Choir in a Norfolk jacket with worn patches, knee-high
boots, and a hacking stick he brandished with a martial air.
he quoted: For morning, in the bowl of night,
Whos for the
Miss Ethyl responded, rising too precipitously from her chair. She knocked
over a teacup which, fortunately, was empty.
I have a fiver
on a lad from the Hall. Mister MacIntyre doubts his stamina but an old
man like that is no judge of boy-flesh.
I thought you
hated county fairs, Lady Tabitha said.
I do. But it
is a healthy hatred. And, as you know, I am a man of many moods.
Have you seen
He raised his eyebrow, detecting, in her stiff propriety, an interest
hitherto unacknowledged. Mr. Finch was up at cock-crow, if indeed
he ever slept. I saw him from my window, striking out across the lawn,
toward town, I suppose. I daresay you will see him at the fair.
Lady Tabitha answered.
You will join
in turn, had felt, at the Earls suggestion, a stiffening on the
part of her neighbor.
We must let
Lady Tabitha eat her breakfast, Miss Ethyl scolded. She is
quite without color.
Ah, she is not
as transparent as all that, the Earl sighed. Come then, I
do not want to miss the first heat.
blushed, completely misinterpreting his words, taking his proffered arm
as if her very touch inflamed him.
After the two had
gone, Lady Tabitha disconsolately regarded the sausage left on Miss Ethyls
otherwise fastidiously clean plate. It formed, with the broken teacup,
a melancholy tableau.
I shall go mad
if I do not speak to him, she said. If I do not tell him all,
everything that has ever happened to me, bare my soul, throw myself at
his feet, and beg him to forgive me.
First making sure
the Earl and Miss Ethyl were a safe distance off, she slipped out herself,
before the next breakfaster could come down the stairs and trap her in
Sutra, that, he reflected, going over the previous nights
unexpected conclusion. Got a way with her, Nan had. A familiarity with
the male anatomy. Not so common, even in women of her profession. You
would be surprised. Had a...a sympathy, thats it. He was free of
her now, having gotten up at the crack of dawn and sauntered off, careful
not to disturb her labored sleeping breath. To the village for a freshly
laid egg or two. And then? That depended. Have to see if his communication
had been answered. If there was a reward, he would cable back, stay here
to collect. If not, well there was always the open road. Something about
possessing a woman (though he had not, in the strictest sense, done so)
that had a strange opposite effect. Want to put as much distance as possible
between you and the offending party. Now why was that? He whistled as
he walked, hands in the pockets of his still presentable uniform. Wish
I had my good boots, though, he thought. These regimentals had lost their
shine. Mrs. Griggs was no doubt taking good care of them. Where was he?
Ah yes, Woman and Distance and the Morning After. Well, maybe it was simply
that she has seen me naked. He tingled at the recollection of her extraordinary
mouth. Quite adequate compensation for his services. One was even tempted
to re-enlist. He smiled. No, no, Johnny Carter. You are not the settling-down
type. Always a rover, was the Colonels motto. He struck
a good pace as the path widened.
An hour later, staggering
out of the Town Hall, where mail had indeed been left for him, the Colonel
presented quite another aspect. His eyes were wide, his gait unsteady
but animated. He wanted to go in many directions at once, chiefly sideways,
and, with a jostling bunch of priorities, looked high for a church steeple,
low as he pulled out the cloth of his empty pockets, all while reading
and rereading the crumpled telegram in his hand, and occasionally smacking
his forehead, exclaiming, By Jove!
This is how Lutwidge
saw him, or would have seen him, had he looked. But the previous night
had had the exact opposite effect on our hero. He was walking with his
chin sunk to his chest, his hands buried deep in his trousers, seeing
no more than the fine, delicate beige dust of the much travelled country
road. For the Colonel, however, the appearance of this familiar figure
was all in keeping with the strange new world he had just now entered.
Mr. Finch, he called, surprising even himself by plucking the name,
heard once, many months ago, at the chophouse on Porter Street, from the
warm morning air.
he said, Jonathan S. Colonel. Her Majestys Sixth Halberdiers.
said vaguely. Of course. How do you do, sir?
the Colonel said, slapping him on the back. I am to be married,
That is good
news. Finch smiled. I congratulate you.
It had to happen,
the Colonel said sentimentally, already reviewing his bachelor days in
He resisted the temptation to drape his arm around the younger man. Bit
of a stick, he remembered now. But what was important was that he needed
ready cash, and knew no one else in this bumpkin patch. So it was a piece
of luck, running into such a ripe, respectable type, and not one he intended
to let slip through his fingers. The ball and chain. Beckons to
the best of us. You will see. Some day.
Finch said. Who is the lucky lady? A local girl?
Oh, an heiress,
the Colonel said casually. We could afford the Abbey, with what
she brings, but I like things simple. The country touch, you know. None
of that glass coach business for me.
the Colonel hemmed and hawed, I find myself without-- Wait a minute.
He stepped back as if to judge Lutwidge anew. Why, you would do
To stand with
me. Best man and all. Provide some artillery on my side of the aisle.