It is Gods
truth, he said solemnly, touching the medals on his chest.
I am staying
at the Hall, Finch protested one last time. I do not have
the proper clothes.
Come as you are, Mr. Finch. I told you, none of that lace curtain stuff for us. I am a son of the soil, myself. It is that church over there. Saint-- Saint Someones, Im sure. In an hour. Oh! And could you give me five pounds? We did not bother to fuss with publishing the banns, all in keeping with the modest ceremony. Dont want a bunch of her fancy relatives trooping out. Have to tip the chaplain a bit extra for that. It is your responsibility, you know, as best man. Thank you. Now I must be off, he called, before Finch could answer. I have so much to do. It is the greatest day of my life. Thank God for you, sir.
On a hillside, where
the road paused before descending into town, Lady Tabitha took deep breaths,
filling herself with resolve. What she would have to say was not easy.
He thought I was an angel until last night. Now he suspects I am a whore.
To tell him the truth, that I am a woman, risks losing everything. For
what does he want with a woman, one among many? It troubled her that at
breakfast today, unthinkingly, she had replied to Miss Ethyls query,
No, she had never been in love. It came to her again now, this nagging
wish for certainty, where all she felt was the opposite. Oh you
will know when you are in love, her mother had told her. But that
womans sad history was no example to follow. Did my mother love
my father? she wondered. Am I about to make the same terrible mistake?
But her feet were moving forward. Her body, in some sensible way, knew
what was right. Her mind, in a deep, wordless place, was rehearsing what
it would say. The hardest thing in the world is to ask for help. Her emotions
were methodically taking down their walls, brick by brick, throwing open
their gates, spiking their guns. It was in this state of nakedness she
came upon the object of her affections, and what she saw made her blood
Lutwidge was a small
distinct figure in the distance. He was engaged in discussion with someone
she could not see at first, but evidently the two speakers were close,
since from time to time the man touched Lutwidges shoulder or waved
forcefully. Once, he pounded his chest, as if to swear the veracity of
an assertion. A familiar gesture. Then the two turned as the other man
took his leave and she saw...Yes! There was no mistaking it. Johnny Carters
bald head, high protuberant eyes and dyed mustache. My God, he was even
in uniform, as he had often dressed on the pier, for those night promenades
he insisted would be good for Tabithas health. Chinese lanterns
and the obscene slap of black wavelets against rotted wood. Johnny Carter
here, in Little Dipping. It could only mean one thing. Yes, she knew she
was in love now, because the rending pain she felt, imagining what they
were discussing, was more than she could bear. Clearly Lutwidge had made
inquiries, as any man of standing would, about the woman he was about
to marry. She remembered the fateful meeting at Simpsons, her fears
then, so amply justified now. Take your blood money, she silently challenged
the Colonel, as she saw him accept from Lutwidge a large bank note. Why
not? Here at last is the final morsel you will peck from my mothers
corpse. Take it! There was an overwhelming taste of bitterness in her
mouth. Finch was still staring after the departing Colonel, in a state
of stunned bemusement, she supposed.
Go to him now, a voice
So this is the world,
she thought. Your bed is made and you must lie in it. God forbid you were
young, or innocent, or unlucky. To hear the Colonel tell it, no doubt
she had been a depraved vixen of thirteen, wise beyond her years, practically
offered up by her desperate, pandering mother, eager to maintain her hold
on the man once her own fading charms proved inadequate.
The horror of it was:
she could easily have been convinced this scenario was true, despite knowing
in her heart it was not.
Go to him, the voice
repeated. But she was frozen in place. The past was inescapable. She turned
before Lutwidge might see her and walked quickly back to the Hall.
he said, in the tones of an animal trainer, that same mix of stagy affection
and genuine threat.
It is bad news,
she whispered, still in a dream. They have come for me.
have, Nan, he said heartily, having no time for her hysterics. He
was already, in his mind, her husband, in legal possession of a large
fortune, if his informant was correct. His second act, after buying himself
a large box of Corona-Corona cigars, would be to rein in her disturbing
chatter. Come girl, it is your big day.
She opened her eyes
How well I remember
last night, he proclaimed. When you gave me all that a woman
can give a man.
protested, quite clear for once. I only--
And I, in turn,
he went on, have decided, in the same spirit, to make of you what
few would think possible.
I am sick,
she said. I cannot--
woman, of course! Come, my dear. We shall go down into town today and
He waited to see what
effect this would have. He had never proposed to a woman before, and felt
himself quite moved. A tear trembled in the corner of his eye. Since,
however, the black pomade he used on his mustache had run out yesterday,
he took care to smear it sideways along his cheek.
Nan said, sitting up.
You are not
already? The horrible thought seized his mind.
Oh no. Who would
marry me? she asked, looking down.
The offer is
on the table, he said, sensing his victory, the token resistance
overcome. I have paid off the vicar, lined up a witness, and...look.
He produced a small, tubular band of gold. The ring from the nose
of Deccan savage. I got it off a sapper who survived the Mutiny. Always
carried it with me, waiting for the right girl.
Nan said gently, it is what I have been trying to tell you all along.
I cannot be with you as a woman is with a man, as a wife is with a husband.
It is my sickness, you see. The man who knows these things...I saw him
last night. He warned me--
she said sadly. I shall die. But if it will please you, I will become
She rose and touched
his wet cheeks, then calmed and soothed him with motherly words
as he buried his face in her breast. Beyond him, she gazed, with troubled,
haggard eyes, down onto Little Dipping, and the spire of the town church.
Finch returned to
the Hall in no better mood than he had left it. He was tired being taken
advantage of. It was not just being touched for five pounds (he would
have paid ten times that amount to see the Colonel safely struck from
the lists of the unmarried), but the encounter was in some way symbolic
of a general tenor to his life. His mild, sunny disposition invited people
to be more and more outrageous with him, as if to counter-balance his
own too-sane nature. Take Tabitha, for instance, he argued at random (or
so he thought, in fact it was last night, preying on his mind the whole
time), of course he wanted her, more than anything, but he had, in the
past, shown restraint because he respected her, and the result, apparently,
had been to goad her into a humiliating display both could hardly help
but regret. This was the reason he had absented himself so early, giving
her a chance to recover, to come down the stairs in the morning without
her cheeks burning in recognition and remembrance should she find him
at the breakfast table. But now, as he covered the last few elm-lined
steps to the door, he allowed himself to feel a natural resentment at
being pushed this way and that by her moods like some piece of flotsam
on the tide. I love her, confound it, he said. And all
I want in return is her love. Not to be used like one of her ballroom
beaux in some grotesque parody of flirtation. All this was expressed
in his quickened pace and a hardening of his features as he threw back
the door. Had he met Tabitha just then, once again all might have been
well. He was frankly angry, and this genuine emotion might have dissolved
the differences between them just as effectively as her intended remorse
earlier. Alas, it was not Lady Tabitha who was the recipient of this terrible
frown, but the Baroness Tattson.
You have heard,
she said, mistaking his look for one of reaction to bad news.
he said. No. Heard what?
She is gone.
The reception area
to the Hall was a natural setting for histrionics. Marble statues of forgotten
ancestors stood with their knees crooked, wearing pleated skirts, tights,
and clanky-looking swords, while great multicolored pillars of jasper
and sham ivory rose only to stop in midair, refusing to take responsibility
for a ceiling whose depiction of the astrological heavens was inaccurate
without being either fanciful or quaint. The Baroness, having seen Finch
approach from a window, had positioned herself dead-center before the
first huge rounded step of the stair and now thrust a letter out, so it
was lit by a ray of morning sun.
Gone? To the
fair? Lutwidge asked, wishing to deflate the ladys melodrama,
though this time he suspected, she might have cause.
No, you fool,
she snapped. She is gone. Packed. Commandeered a carriage. I did
not know until it was too late. Not that anything I could have said would
have stopped her, I suppose. She is a guest, free to come and go.
no doubt. There! She cocked her head, hearing the train whistle
blow. You wont catch her now. Where have you been?
said irrelevantly. I take it that is for me?
I found it on
her bed. She left me a note as well, merely saying she was summoned to
Town. The Baroness regarded him sharply. I am told by my servants
there were many comings and goings last night. I trust you did nothing
to upset Tabitha. She is a very fragile girl, you know.
She has a will
of iron, Finch protested.
Perhaps. But like the pure form of that metal she will break before she will bend. The
Baroness watched Lutwidge
finger the envelope. I will not stay while you read that. I must
be off anyway, to the fair. But first, swear you did nothing beastly last
Alas, I was
the perfect gentleman, Finch murmured.
Then I am truly
puzzled, the Baroness sighed, and took herself away.
Finch traced his fingers
over the envelopes handwriting, and sniffed at the scented pages
within. Though he dreaded reading the contents, still he thrilled at what
he held, for this was, ironically, the first letter from Lady Tabitha
he had ever received.
The bleatings, lowings,
deep grunts and belches of the fair were just as Choir remembered. And
we havent even reached the animal pens yet, he thought grimly, glaring
at the peasantry, overfamiliar in their happiness. Some touched their
caps as they saw him but others merely grinned, drunk, no doubt, at eleven
in the morning. How you would look in the stocks! Choir smiled back. Your
wrists and ankles securely contained by seasoned oak, your head straining
forward, tongue lolling, eyes vacant as they are now but with a glaze
of respect to them. Many thought, seeing him this way, genial, returning
their greetings, that he was a man of the people, a good sort.
Miss Ethyl, conversely,
with her girlish enthusiasm and affected exclamations (which were sincere,
despite being affected, she was simply nervous) no doubt made a less favorable
Look at that
charming broomstick! she bawled, perhaps envisioning it hung in
a picturesque hermits shack, for certainly she had never held a
broom with the intention of sweeping. And those curious yellow slippers.
Choir said absentmindedly. It came to him again that the hand so desperately
clutching his sleeve was worth sixty thousand pounds. Sixty thousand pounds
They came to the field
where the races were run.
What is it that
appeals to you so about this competition? she asked.
Oh, the good
clean fun of it, I suppose, he answered, trying with his stick to
cripple one of these ragamuffins scooting round his feet. And the
chance to go off with a pretty girl at ten in the morning has its points
Oh, my Lord,
He swore he could
actually feel her bliss, as if her arm were no more than a tube for transmitting
sensations. She certainly is gripping me tight enough for that, he complained.
Speaking of pretty girls, having done his duty before King, Country, and
the Baroness this morning, he must seek out Lady Tabitha later in the
day. Last night he had perhaps been foolish, lobbing such explicit thoughts
into her head. But one of the girls appeals was that you could say
anything to her. She fancied herself so modern nothing could shock. People
like that, he reflected, are so often hoisted on their own petard. Still,
of her sort, this de Bourneville woman was first class. As for the creature
on his arm at the moment, she was what he believed was called an insurance
policy, which Lord knew he needed, considering the dangerous compact he
had just entered into.
And which team
is our money on? Miss Ethyl asked.
he said bitterly, is on the Halls houseboy, James, and his
brother over there.
of you, knowing their names.
are James, Choir yawned. Just as all footmen are Charles.
I see you have
brought someone for luck, Mister MacIntyre said, bowing low to Miss
Ethyl. You have an old man at a disadvantage.
He was, it is true, alone, wearing his own set of battered tweeds and a rakish hat. Instead of a cane, he held one of those seat-tops that rest on the end of a pole.