"I am proposing to be your partner, in every sense of the word."
Choir, amused, raised his hand. A waiter appeared.
"Will you drink with me?" he asked. "No? Well I need something. Cognac." He returned his eyes to Hepzibah. "I cannot decide if you wish to save my soul, or claim it."
"I wish to be the Lady of Choir Castle," she shrugged.
"Understand," he said gravely. "I will marry before the six months is up. I already have my sights trained on the most eligible of heiresses."
"No doubt. But perhaps you will come to realize that the union I propose is in your own best interest. That is what I wished to tell you, personally, not to see you beg, but to make you think."
"Very well. Then this will be less a loan and more in the nature of a bet. Though it is not my habit to wager with ladies."
She smiled, acknowledging the compliment, and took off the small, heart-shaped locket that hung round her neck. Free of that possible entanglement, she slowly began to draw up the links of her gold chain. Like hauling a bucket from a deep well, Choir thought, trying not to appear eager. Finally, the key to the strongbox appeared.
"Five thousand pounds. Please count it and sign this receipt."
"Oh, I trust you," the Earl said, pocketing the thick wads of notes.
"As you like. Sign here."
He did, with surprising care, his tongue stuck partway out, as if he had just learned how to write.
"Where will you go now?" Madame Schlierbeck asked, taking advantage of his distracted attention to examine more fully his physique. He was actually somewhat small, but firm and well-knit. She felt a flicker go through her, the lingering aftereffects of Monsieur Robert's massage, no doubt, and resisted the temptation to reach out and touch the curly head bent over the document.
"My clothes are in shocking condition," he said, completing the signature with a flourish. "While here, I intend to order a new wardrobe, then return later and oversee the fittings."
It was easy to see why people underestimated the Earl, taking his rather insipid manner (which was genuine, he really was preoccupied, already, with the relative merits of the paisley versus the polka dot) for an expression of his true nature. But just as a cheetah can appear the epitome of laziness when at rest, then bound off to outrun an antelope, so Choir, despite a hunger for the ephemeral, the worthless and impractical, could act with swift decisiveness and cunning when it was in his interest to do so. Indeed, only then. It was this queer blend that attracted, or let us say, excited Hepzibah. His dual nature made the loan--yes, he was right--something in the nature of a gamble. It was exciting that he was not so boringly predictable as her other clients had all proved to be.
"Are there geese at Choir Castle?" she asked.
"Geese? Yes. And chickens, and ducks, and goats. They wander through the dining hall, which resembles nothing so much as a station platform nowadays, with no furniture and the roof in tatters."
She signalled for the hotel servant, who came and took away the strongbox.
"I must go," she said, holding out her hand.
He kissed it, enjoying the slight blush he thought he detected.
"In six month's time, then?" Hepzibah smiled.
"You shall receive an invitation long before then," he promised. "But you people are not permitted to enter the Abbey, are you?"
Alone, Choir had the waiter bring him another drink. He was so giddy with excitement at being once again in funds he knew it was best to sit, not run off wildly and start buying whatever came to eye. Be sensible, part of him warned. But he knew he would not feel fully alive until he had made his first extravagant purchase. The silk smoking jackets of the rue Dalier beckoned. A locket rested on the table. Yes, she had taken it off when extracting the key. He picked it up and looked for Madame Schlierbeck, but she was already gone. I shall pass it on to Hardheart, he thought, who shall return it along with the loan once I am able to sell off the Shepperton estate. The ludicrous image of Hepzibah tossing grain to the assorted livestock of Choir Castle made him shake his head. What was the world coming to?
In Rome, the Duchess Middleton was entertaining similar thoughts. There are Jews everywhere, she scowled, mistaking the Holy Father himself (perhaps because of the office's tiny white skullcap) for his illustrious predecessor. A contingent of Swiss Guards nearly ran her down. The Eternal City was a dangerous place. She would never have come here at all, certainly not in October, had it not been a question of duty. The Duchess was very conscious of her role as matriarch of the Bourneville clan. It gave her actions meaning. She was a representative, a dignitary, even if these greasy heathens refused to acknowledge the fact. Of course the only way to get respect from foreigners is to wave a piece of gaudy play money under their rather pronounced noses, she told herself. But, here incognito, she suffered the outrages of the solitary traveller in silence. Anything for family. The via del Corso gave onto a more crowded street. To escape, or rather to more fully enter the heat, families dined out on the roadway itself, wax-spattered bottles sporting candles whose flames shone feebly in the still-bright dusk. Horses, used, apparently, to fettucine on cobblestone, picked their way around the various repasts, their great tongues lolling, drool pooling in soft corners of elongate jaws. I am in Hell itself, she fantasized, which I would gladly traverse with the family scutcheon held high, and ferry it unsullied to the opposite shore. But there was the contrasting, nagging notion that she was only wading deeper into a morass, not simply meddling, but having taken an actual wrong turn in the real world. She was too timid to consult the map the owner of her pensione had scrawled on the torn page of a French novel. Walking towards my doom! she thrilled, seeing a boy with no shirt, thin, and with just the start of manhood about him, advance on her with a glass of red champagne.
"I have no money," she said, thinking he meant to sell her refreshment. This stark admission she would have never made in London, where it was simply assumed any Bourneville was rich. So Italy, even to those not seeking it, encourages visitors to cleanse themselves with simple truths. In fact "airs" were mostly what the Duchess lived on.
But the child insisted, holding forth the goblet, which was heavy cut glass, not all what one served sparkling wine in, so that the round surface fizzed like a lake situated in a volcano's crater.
"No!" she cried again. The boy had an idiot's wolf-like smile.
"Lambrusco!" someone called.
Surely being summoned by name would make him break off. But he only motioned again, exaggerated his already outstretched offer, causing the wine to slop and spill towards her, one red drop catching the late Roman sun.
"Signora." A man had gotten up and was lumbering over. "It is Lambrusco, a wine of celebration. My boy asks you to drink to our daughter's health."
"Oh." She saw now the wedding party, charmingly grouped before one of the subsiding tenements.
"It is custom," the man went on, taking the glass from the boy and handing it to her. "A stranger gives her blessing."
"I will indeed." She felt the bubbles bite her lip.
"Miranda." The father pointed out each member of the multitude. "Her husband, Sergio. Sergio's mother, Alma..." And on it went. The Duchess nodded at each in turn, with a vague smile she hoped conveyed her lofty beneficence. "And two of your own countrymen who live here in the quartiere."
She had by now unconsciously drunk half the glass and felt less a sense of violation at the man's sweaty, garlicky presence. But seeing the very people she had come in search of, seated comfortably among the other celebrants, the Duchess stiffened, took a deep breath, much as an actress does before stepping out from the wings, and advanced on the unsuspecting pair.
"What did you ever do with my macaw?" Bradley Ghoulrich was asking.
"He was very good with parsley sauce," Lutwidge Finch recalled.
"Tell me you are joking."