The soft yet powerful hands of Monsieur Robert were completely at Madame Schlierbeck's service. She lay naked on a marble slab, having dispensed with even the modest sheet she had been offered, and allowed his lightning-fast palms to chop up and down her back, felt them stray, daringly, teasingly, to that nether region so ill-defined in our anatomy where the body's upright nature shades indistinctly toward that of its quadruped ancestor.
"Mmmm," she said, finding the experience called for wordless, yet vocal, appreciation.
It would have done no good to talk. Monsieur Robert spoke not a word of English and Hepzibah Schlierbeck, despite the 'Madame' with which she continued to preface her name (it would do until Lady) had no French. But they understood each other perfectly, these two, the adorer and the adored, as he moved on to her shoulders, appraising, admiring, suggesting, all in the articulate language of the physical.
"Voila!" he finally said, less a word in this case than an exclamation, accompanied, as it was, by a friendly slap on the bottom, as if he had just delivered her, safe and sound, into this new sensual world.
No crying babe though, Madame Schlierbeck merely sat up lazily (all her bones seemed newly acquainted, making a jolly, good-natured effort to work together, no petty jealousies, gripes or nursed aches, having yet arisen) and smiled. She reached for the purse resting on top of her carefully folded clothes and tendered a large, chocolate-colored coin. Monsieur Robert bowed slightly and, with a twinkling, luck-wishing look in his eye, left the 'Madame Anglaise', as they had come to call her at the Bains Solitaire, alone, so that she might dress.
Paris was a revelation for Hepzibah. Never before had she realized what "abroad" meant, how one could flower here as nowhere else. It was not that she was going native, aping the locals, making a spectacle of herself. Rather, it was that her economical and practical exterior, hard as that of a small seed, had burst forth in the most unexpected manner. Stretching her arms, she felt exhilaration surge through her body. In twenty minutes lay the appointment. She thought she would be nervous, now she knew she would not. How fortunate it had been, yielding to Mr. Hardheart's repeated demand that, if she insisted on handing over the sum to be loaned his Lordship personally, it at least be done on the Continent. Her father, of all people, had offered the unlikely encouragement that finally convinced her. He had overheard her refusing, again, to make the journey to Paris, and, after the agent left, remonstrated with his daughter for "shutting herself up in this poky little store." It had hurt, to hear him denigrate their establishment so. Their home, she felt, for they did little more upstairs than eat and sleep. But Reza Schlierbeck was insistent. "You think I lived here all my life?" he asked. "I came here, after many adventures. I like it here fine now, for a man of my age. But you, knoedelichen, you have to see things, kick the dust from your heels, before you decide to settle down." In the end, he had forced her hand by threatening to invite to dinner the widow Klein, a woman clearly smitten with Reza's still lean and romantic profile. "Of course I couldn't if I was alone here," he went on, blithely ignoring Hepzibah's smoldering stare. "It wouldn't look right. But with you as chaperone..." So she gave up the picture of Jeffrey, Eighth Earl of Choir, stooping low to avoid the domino-like knocking of dried salami that formed a bead curtain above the entranceway to her office, and with little more than a guidebook, a letter of credit, and one indispensable item from the fragrant alcove, set off on her journey.
The café table was reserved, the man from the hotel, waiting. She signed a receipt and saw with pleasure the strongbox set down on the round, rose-veined marble. It was a sentimental gesture, having the box here. Flat, chipped, dented deeply, this was the very container Reza had carried his meager savings in when coming to England so long ago. It was only fitting the money should return now, much multiplied by dogged labor, just as she was returning, not the struggling merchant but his successful daughter, to the continent, if not the country, of her ancestors. Indeed, she now saw something providential, clairvoyant, in her having adopted the sobriquet Madame, since France fit her like a glove. It was many things, the smell of the air, the light through trees, but mostly, she reflected, sipping mineral water and watching the world go by, it was just this: the unending theater of people passing. In London people passed too, of course, but bundled up, even in summer, their emotions tightly buttoned, their faces giving away nothing. It was to penetrate this tough carapace and so succeed in her chosen field that Madame Schlierbeck had developed her ability to shrewdly judge, to see past all subterfuge (the conscious and the unconscious), to sense the true motive, worth, and trustworthiness, of her clients. Here, people dressed to show, much as characters in a play attempt to convey even more by their clothes and manner than by their spoken lines. People paraded. You were encouraged to observe. You never felt you were spying, intruding, simply by looking across the street, or into someone's eyes. It would all be for naught, if one did not, for what was the actor without the audience, the parade without the cheering crowd? Faces brimmed here, with happiness, with tears, with hunger, but showed, in a way their English counterparts did not. So she sat, thoroughly at ease, appreciating her fellow humans for the first time, subjecting them not to a narrow, cynical analysis, but offering them an amiable, almost loving acceptance. How rare, she thought, considering her universally despised race, to feel one belongs.
The view was replaced by the Earl of Choir, who sat opposite without asking permission or indeed uttering her name. He was immaculately tailored as always, with a monocle hanging loose on a purple ribbon, his jet-black mustache, and a sprig of lilac in his lapel. He wore scent, she noted, also of lilac. And carried a rapier-thin cane.
"Well," he said insolently, taking out a cigarette case, "gaze your fill."
"I beg your pardon?"
"My agent said you wanted to see me, personally, before completing our transaction. Seemed damned irregular to me but since I have no choice..."
"Our arrangement itself is irregular," Madame Schlierbeck pointed out, watching him wave away the waiter. This was not, she saw, a social call for the Earl. This was not even business. It was a disgusting task and he would make no effort to conceal the fact. His gallantry did not extend, did not descend, to dealings with her kind. It stopped abruptly, as at the edge of a swamp. "I simply wanted to make things clear, face to face."
"It is all spelled out in that paper I signed, isn't it?"
"I am lending you five thousand pounds," she said, patting the top of the strongbox.
--to which his eyes involuntarily swerved, as if a starving animal had been offered meat--
"You, in six month's time, will either pay back the sum, with interest, or agree to marry me."
"Yes, well anything for a good sandwich, I always say."
"I want you to understand the gravity of the agreement you are entering into. I will hold you to your word. There is no other reason for my loaning you this sum. The rate I am offering is far in reduction to what you would get elsewhere. And if the Choir name means anything, you will not suffer it to be soiled by my bringing a suit for Breach of Promise."
He laughed harshly, fit the monocle in his eye and glanced over her with a look of incredulity.
"Madame Schlierbeck," he said sarcastically, "please excuse me if the schoolgirl fantasies of a moneylenderess do not interfere with the day-to-day considerations of a peer. I will take your cash, and at the end of six months I will give it back to you with the blood money you people are so famous for extorting. The tall tale you are telling exists only in your overheated imagination. I am sorry," he gave a mock, seated bow, "to disappoint."
"You intend to marry for the repayment, then?"
"That is none of your concern."
"Your concerns are my concerns. And mine, yours," she added significantly, continuing to rest her hand on the top of the box.
His gaze rested there as well. He pursed his lips.
"What is it you want?" he asked, in a different tone of voice now. "I have come, haven't I? If you wished to see me brought low, if you wished to see me shamed, well, understand: this is humiliation for me, simply my being here, at your beck and call."
"I don't want to shame you," she frowned, not sure this was strictly true. What about that picture she had of him quite literally brought low, stooping to enter the humble precincts of her office? "It is your title that interests me, and your station."
"--both of which would mean nothing if I defiled them with an outrageous marriage. You face the classic climber's dilemma. Wherever you want to get, you will never get there, because by definition it does not include you."
"That is not how I see it," Madame Schlierbeck riposted. "The way I see it, you are the last in a line of old, tired, sterile dead wood. And I am exactly what you so desperately need. New blood. New capital. With my resources, you might actually begin to approximate what a true nobleman should be, one whose actions are backed by authority, one whose word is law. You think people bow to you now, but they snigger behind your back. 'There goes the penniless Earl,' they whisper. If you put me in charge of your lands, I guarantee in ten years you will be free and clear of all debts, in twenty years, the luster of the Choir arms will be restored to their former glory, and in thirty years, god willing, you will be the practically independent ruler of a small kingdom, with greater powers than, say, your great-great grandfather ever had."
"Are you applying to become my bailiff or my wife?"
"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."