What is love? Bradley Ghoulrich proposed, taking up where the two relative novices of the previous chapter had left off. As one who has devoted his lifehas given his lifeto the subject, I feel I possess no small degree of expertise in the matter.
I am not denying that, Lutwidge Finch said, keeping his eyes on the portion of clear broth, a spoonful of which Bradley would maddeningly raise to his lips, and then, letting his mind wander, spill back into the bowl. What was it you saw in him?
Champagne. He looked down at the spoon in surprise, as if puzzled the portion was still full. Vintage Krug. The label handwritten. The particular vineyard and field specified. One does not so much drink it as perform a marriage ceremony with the glass. With this mouth, I thee take.
He tried demonstrating, but paused, agonizingly close to actually sipping a spoonful.
One does not fall in love with someone because of the champagne they offer you.
No? But I am a very shallow person, Lutwidge. I prefer surface to depth. Though depth has its charms, he considered, letting the soup once again splash back.
Then why did you leave him?
I did not leave him. I merely got out of his coach.
While it was still moving, apparently.
I was trying to convince him... Ghoulrich paused. He shook his head. There is a plague, you know. Spreading. A sickness not just eating at the fringes of society but emanating from its very core. The whole fabric is rotting away.
People always talk like that, Lutwidge demurred. Then they go on and order their anchovy toast as if nothing had happened.
He is responsible for certain steps, Ghoulrich said. Barbaric measures suggested to him by soulless bureaucrats. I was attempting to have him reconsider. I thought I had...influence. I mistook the affection he showed me for the respect I ought to have been accorded.
And he ignored your advice?
He is of a different order than ourselves. I do not believe anyone had ever spoken to him as I did, not in his entire life.
So he got angry. He pushed you from the carriage, Lutwidge suddenly realized, and ran you down. He tried to murder you!
He has a temper.
A fit of pique. If you dance with the devil, you must expect to have your toe trod on, from time to time. He regrets it now, of that I am sure.
How do you know?
Well, the young man smiled, looking at his hand, which alone among his features was perhaps enhanced by the diseases wan transformations. It was even more pale and delicate-appearing than before. ...no one can do without me for very long. This liquid has the temperature, not to mention the consistency, of tap water.
We will move on to the fruit. Finch took away the bowl and gave him a cluster of grapes.
Cupid and Bacchus my saints are:
May drink and love still reign.
With wine I wash away my cares,
And then... And then... something ...again.
But we were speaking of love. You love her, dont you?
How in hell should I know?
In hell it would be easy. You would pine for her and she would not be there. You would think of things to tell her and they would die for the lack of telling. You would see beautiful sights and point...only to discover the beauty fled when you returned emptyhanded.
In that sense, yes, I do love her.
Then go to her.
If she wants me, she will summon me. Carrier has my address. She says in her letter not to
Ghoulrich was playing the same game with the grape, holding it up, considering it first from all sides, which, since it was round, meant turning it constantly, like a single rosary bead, except now he threw it at Finch with surprising force, bouncing it off his long-suffering friends ear.
You want to know what I saw in him, Lutwidge? I saw death. I saw an end to my troubles.
You mean you knew of the contagions existence already?
No. But I knew no good could come of it. That was the appeal. To be enfolded in blackness. To let evil in. That is the kind of despair you will face if you do not seek out this girl.
Why were you in such despair?
Ghoulrich slid low in the bed, looking up at the ceiling of the modest flat. Outside, the sound of Roman children playingthe closest nature comes to music, or music to nature, for that mattermeant afternoon was giving way to evening. Soon it would be forty-eight hours since he had taken any nourishment.
I suppose because the true love of my life was denied me. And, as you know, I am too stubborn to settle for anything, or anyone, second-rate.
Denied you. How?
By circumstance, Ghoulrich replied. By temperament.
All right, Lutwidge said, getting up. How does one go about it?
Go about what?
Whatever it is you do.
Ghoulrich looked up at him. Finch stood over the bed, his hands hanging awkwardly at his sides.
I am sorry, Lutwidge. Bradley squinted, wiping his brow. ...the fever, perhaps. I do not
You are talking about me, arent you? You are always making these references. Do you think I never notice? I am not stupid. You make me feel I am responsible for this current fix you are in, because I did not return the love you felt for me. Well, come now, exactly what is it you people do? I may very well be of the same nature as yourself and just not know it. Certainly the state I am in now affords me no satisfaction.
Ghoulrich began to shake. At first Finch thought it was another fit, but then he saw it was laughter. Not the hysteria of the previous seizures, just a long, purging, tragicomic hoot.
I want to make you happy, he insisted, still standing there, refusing to be ignored, not caringthis, his great virtueif he looked silly, ready to roll up his shirtsleeves and get to work.
Oh you have made me happy, Lutwidge. Very and very and very. Could I trouble you for another grape?
But before Ghoulrich could get it down he began giggling again.
Time we were going, Finch said, finally moving.
Dont be offended, Lutwidge, Bradley called, fearing his friend might be hurt. It is just that my feelings for you are based on your unattainability. To actually be confronted by your very self, well... he batted his long lashes, ...it is simply overwhelming.
Shut up and get dressed.
I am not going.
But it was you who suggested I write MacIntyre in the first place.
Yes, you seemed so pleased to read of his marriage in the Times. And it was such a relief from having you recite the football scores.
I was simply glad some good came of all those odd doings at Tattson Hall.
I am too weak. I will stay home and eat a grape.
Then I shall stay too.
No, please go. I insist. Besides, I cannot trust myself with you now, he teased.
Reluctantly, Finch dressed and prepared to go out. But somethingmany thingsBradley had said, troubled him. He appeared at the doorway to find his friend staring resolutely out the window.
What are those...barbaric measures you spoke of the government taking? he asked.
Bradley, unsurprised, shook his head while continuing to look out on the street.
To know that is to die, he answered.
But you are still alive.
Am I? He smiled. There are the church bells. You will be late.
I would rather stay.
No, he said. Go observe love in its proper, sanctified, anointed form. Perhaps it will inspire you to act, in regard to Lady T, and stop pestering me with your juvenile propositions.
You are impossible, Finch sighed, leaving without further goodbyes.
It is my aim, Ghoulrich agreed softly.
He was watching the street, waiting, hoping. He saw Lutwidge walk off below, in the direction of the Piazza del Popolo. It was crucial that he did not run into... Ah, there it was, coming from the other direction, thank God. A near miss, that. He grabbed the window frame, suddenly weak, and watched the black, shuttered, turreted coach slide silently to a halt in front of the buildings front door. Charon and his ferry could not have provided more direct service, he noted with satisfaction.
The room Tabitha stayed in still bore sad mementos of the couples lost son. A set of snowshoes, the laced network of gut hanging stiff and dry off a nail on the wall, a stocking cap she had not the heart to remove from the post at the foot of the bed. They had preserved the room as a kind of shrine, and yet she was living hereshe felt the awkwardness of the situationsimply because they needed the money. She came back from her walk and found the mother, broom laid to one side, fingering mutely a sock.
I am sorry, Tabitha said, making to leave again, as if she had just stopped in, though of course there was no place else for her to go.
Please, the woman smiled kindly. I was just cleaning here. I will be through in a moment.
His? Yes. It belonged to my boy. She held it with a rueful tenderness. I knew I would find it. I have the other one, you see. He was always losing things. It was just a matter of time before this turned up. It is the last.
Tabitha had unwound her scarf while the landlady spoke. There was nothing unusual about the sock, it was plain and blue, once darned, but perhaps because the topic was so painful both women looked at the sad, slightly absurd object, rather than at each other.
The last? Tabitha ventured to ask.
The last thing of his I will find, the mother said. Everything is accounted for now. I can put it in a box I keep, with its other.
Would that I could pack the past so neatly away, Tabitha brooded.
That night, she broke into the Grand Hotel.
It was an insane thing to do and that was the chief reason she did it. Without fanfare, without noticing it herself, she had at some point crossed an invisible line and left everything she had ever been taught, all standards of taste, all calculations for the future and considerations of the past, behind. What does it matter she asked, to try and be correct when I am so hopelessly flawed? It is like dressing up a monkey in proper clothes. I am bad, and the only way I can express my nature is to act badly. The proof, she felt, was in how good she was at it. Who would have thought the delicate, sophisticated society girl Tabitha de Bourneville, wrapped in a dark cloak she had silently borrowed from her hosts, could have climbed halfway up the mountainside, darting in and out of starlight, evading the tramp of the towns solitary constable, made a quick circuit round the hulking structure of the Grand Hotel, found its one vulnerable spot and, with that same gloved hand Fusiliers had vied to lead out onto the floor for the evenings first quadrille, smashed the small pane of glass above the doorknob and let herself in?
Had I only realized my talents earlier I would have planned robberies on a grand scale, she smiled, recalling a reception she had once attended at which the Crown Jewels were worn.
She glided down the narrow, carpeted hallway. She had not brought a lantern and the darkness was complete, but, We have been here before, she told her mother, whom she carried inside her like an unborn babe. Tabitha was one of those children who realize early on that they are more mature than their parent and must, in fact, take care of the older one, as if their natural roles were reversed. One can hardly blame her, then, when the opportunity arose to ally herself with someone for whom she had true feelings, Lutwidge Finch, that she shied from the commitment, as a horse does before a dangerous jump. The natural inclination to strive for ones own happiness is, in such an upbringing, frowned on, since it means a corresponding separation from the needy parent. Besides (not so coincidentally), in the myth she pieced together from her mothers forlorn ramblings, marriage had seemed the tragic misstep. All before had been glittering and glamorous, full of promise, and what followed was one long fall, leading to the unhappy creature who lay weeping in the young girls arms. Hardly a good example for one whose only prospects lay in matrimony. And here, on this very spot, is where it had all gone wrong.
This must have been the lobby, she realized, as if she were excavating some long-lost tomb of the Egyptians. As with the casino, there was covered furniture and ghostly chandeliers seeming to grow down from the ceiling like a caverns dripping stalactites, but the scale was more grand, more appropriate to the seat of some minor principality. She felt her way along the white countertop of marble which lined one side of the room and laid her palms flat on the surface, trying to pick up faint echoes of the past. Suddenly they came to life, possessed with a secret knowledge, and hoisted her high on top of the desk. She had never been in a more unladylike pose, straddling the thick marble, gruntinghearing the sound of fabric tearingbefore pushing herself off and landing on all-fours, crouched like an animal low on the other side. If someone finds me here I will kill them, she promised, and no doubt would have, with her bare hands if necessary. Her eyes, undergoing the same feral transformation, were able to make out rows of enormously thick leather-bound volumes occupying an entire wall. Old registers. Striking the matches she had brought, she found a lamp and turned the wick down so low only a tiny trickle of yellow escaped. Still on the floor, she pored over the volumes. The time of her parents honeymoon, so deeply emblazoned on her memory, now appeared in faded ink and stiff, greenish paper. The pages gave loud crackling sounds as she turned them. Where are you? she asked, and there, as if in response, they were: Sir Richard and Lady Esme Bourneville, London, England. Once again she pictured them, suave and elegant, with many pieces of luggage, still flush with the excitement of each others company, eagerly awaiting the chance to be alone. Her trembling finger, trying to send a caress back twenty years, followed the loops and slashes of her fathers signature. It travelled with loving tenderness across the page, as if speeding them on their way, to find what room they had taken. It would be the Bridal Suite, of course, about whose views her mother had such strong opinions. But a surprise awaited Tabitha. Two numbers were written in the space, and below them, yet a third room, on a different floor, was indicated, with the notation, Nurse. Then, in another hand and ink entirely, printed in block letters by someone unused to or too important to bother with fine penmanship, was this bald announcement running along the bottom of the page, well outside any margin: Child born, 26 January, 11:53 PM, followed by a knot of indecipherable initials. It picked up again, an inch later, with the afterthought: Christened Tabitha, 27 January.
Not a honeymoon, then, but a confinement. Not a marriage for love, but of necessity.
We create our world an instant before stepping into it. There is, bustling ahead of us, a kind of host, smoothing paths, adjusting furniture, ready to whisper peoples names into our ear. How else could we go on? We would be stunned senseless, as Tabitha was now. It is only in those rare moments when the host part of our consciousness falls down on the job, when we walk smack into a door we could have sworn was swung back, or are faced with a hideous reflection claiming to be ourself, that we glimpse the utter strangeness of a universe invented afresh each instant, and realize how impossible life would be if we did not take 99.9 percent of our experience on faith. But walking into a door, seeing ourselves as others do, these were only distant analogies to what Tabitha was feeling. It was not just realizing that what she had grown up believing to be true was false, but that the woman whose ghost she fancied she held in her bosom, the man whose ever-youthful face hung in the shrine she tended daily, these constants in her life, were now revealed as grotesques, rubber-masked demons mocking and taunting the silly schoolgirl pictures she had drawn of them. We are alive! they sneered, as you, apparently, are not. Our world did not revolve around you. We did not come together just to bring you into existence. Rather, you were an accident who ruined our lives. Yes you, Tabitha, are what happened here, the horrible mistake you came looking to find, and this, now, is our revenge, this: your life of guilt and shame.
Did she know this sudden malicious vision was just as distorted as the earlier, more fanciful view of her parents? Perhaps, on some bloodless, rational level. But to someone who has just realized her ageher very birthday!is not what she has always taken it to be, such philosophizing was cold comfort. What hurt worse was the haunting sense of having known all along, instinctively. This new knowledge fit in so neatly with her own feelings of unworthiness! It was as if all that she ever feared could go wrong, had. She was beyond tears. She stared at the evidence. It could answer no questions. It could provide no detail. What was there to do? She replaced the book. She blew out the lamp. One is building a house, a home to live in, ones entire life, and now realizes a mistake was made at the very beginning, in the foundation, and that everything piled on top of the initial error must come crashing down. Does one start again? That adoring, impressionable, wide-eyed girl lapping up stories of the past like mothers milk so that they became part of her, bone and flesh, teeth and eyes, can one become that girl all over again and start anew? No. Her life, quite literally, the life she knew, the life she had made for herself, was over.
Mother lied, Tabitha said. It was important to pronounce the words aloud. In contact with the air they lost some of their poison, were simpler, easier to handle, than as slippery, eel-like thoughts spawning yet more thoughts, each an insidious advance on its predecessor. She was pregnant with me already. The marriage was forced. A shameful thing. That is why, after Father died, my mother was shunned. Most likely my parents did not even love each other. What she told me, the stories she dwelled on and embellished so endlessly, were wishes. Not reality. This is reality. She looked down at her hand, the glove stained with the soot of her adventure. I am the engine, she concluded brokenly, of the tragedy that played all around me. Not the victim, as I so often thought, but the cause. As that old man said, the fruit of evil.
She emerged from where she had entered, crunching heedlessly over broken glass. I thought it would be hard to break in here, she mused. Now I see I shall find it hard to ever leave. All the world seemed tensed, ready for dawn. Smoke rose from the small rooftops below. For some time she had sensed a chasm opening between herself and everyday life. The words that issued from peoples mouths, the actions they performed, seemed increasingly simple and doll-like. The thought of trudging down the mountainside, of returning to the mundane, was suddenly repugnant to her. She turned in the other direction, saw the church, its blocky spire, its spindly cross, and beyond that, what struck her now as her true home: the oblivion of the upper reaches.
Grape? Ghoulrich offered, as he was thrown against his neighbor in the clattering coach.
Thank you, no, Inspector Jenkins said. Are you sure you havent any bags?
Naked I left him and naked I shall return, Bradley smiled. He gave a brief look down, frowning only at how much of his belt was now superfluous. Soon he would have to punch yet another hole in the leather.
Inspector Jenkins, finding himself following the stare and gazing with what might be thought prurient interest, abruptly shifted his attention to the roof of the coach, where a small sliding panel was open to provide air and communication with the driver. However, the Prince having insisted on sending along his personal servant, despite Inspector Jenkins objections that he would attract notice, all the opening did was frame the mans tightly-outlined ankle, outlandishly adorned, considering his station and duties, with gold spurs.
Dont like him, do you? Bradley asked.
I do not know what you mean, sir, Jenkins replied. He did not quite know how to address this young pup, who treated him quite familiarly, and seemed to assume a great intimacy with His Highness, despite the fact that, up until last week, he had been a fugitive.
That is Fauntleroy, Bradley went on, nodding at the jangling anklet. Not Lord Fauntleroy yet, though he has been bucking for it. Of course he will buck for anything, if you catch my drift.
I am sure I dont, Inspector Jenkins said, but could not resist asking, How is it he never speaks?
Why he cannot, Bradley answered, surprised. His tongue has been removed. Dont you know the story? He was briefly a prisoner of the Pasha of Alexandria. Certain operations were performed which permitted latent skills of his to become even more pronounced. Plus, of course, it guaranteed he would not tell tales. Upon his release he was recommended to...well, our Employer.
As if sensing he was being talked about, the servants face appeared in the window. Sullen and coarse, it was rather at odds with his feathered tricorn and crimson collar. He gazed suspiciously down on the two men.
Fauntleroy, how goes the greasy pole? Bradley called, feeling in a sunny, reckless mood. He craves preferment. I am an obstacle he thought he had dispensed with.
He intrigued against you, then? Inspector Jenkins asked, falling in with the spirit of the conversation, despite himself. It was like talking to a precocious child or a pet bird. Which reminded him...
Oh, the things he did against me, Ghoulrich sighed. Intriguing was the least of them, I assure you. But all in all he is stupid, you see. STUPID, he called up, in case the frankly spying Fauntleroy could not hear. ...which was lucky for me, since he is also quite ruthless.
The narrow window slid shut.
Are you the owner of a large, bright green parrot? Inspector Jenkins asked.
A commonly held belief of the day was that the empire had passed its peak and begun a slow, inevitable decline. Peoples reactions to this varied. There were those who called for a return to fundamental values, impractical lurches back to some golden age where citizens supposedly moved in a state of moral and ethical grace. But for many, the laws of nature had pronounced their sentence, and all one could do, with a resigned air (with a sense of relief, perhaps) was shrug and make the most of it. After all, there was something luxurious about living in an age of decay, if one could just slow the process enough to avoid witnessing its nasty end. Decadence, previously a weed society was constantly on guard for, ripping it out at the roots, burning whole fields at the discovery of even a tiny patch, was now tolerated as a kind of exotic plant, beautiful in its way, and a useful spice as well, enlivening the tedium suffered more and more by sophisticated palates. Thus, when word spread of Lutwidge Finch having eloped to the Continent with a particular friend, the rumor evoked less abhorrence than one would have thought. There was shock, of course, and comic disbelief expressed on the part of those who knew our hero well, but no tidal rise of disgust or call for public prosecutions as there would have been, say, a generation before. The Member for Suffolk North had the temerity to make a snide referencebirds of a feather, that sort of thingbut, strangely, the speech did not appear in the next days Hansard, nor did the gentleman himself, at subsequent sittings. This effectively silenced talk of the affair. It was a government matter, people whispered, about which the less said, the better.
It is perfectly all right so long as they take precautions, the Baron Tattson grumbled, after his wife had completed her sixth retelling of the story.
But you do not understand, she wailed. Lutwidge is not of that persuasion, I am sure of it. Why the last time we spoke he was pouring out his heart about Tabitha de Bourneville.
They were gazing over the vast, empty ballroom of Tattson House, where the Baroness had brought the Baron for his opinion on wallpaper, of all things.
Now this one... the she said uncertainly, James, hold it here, very good...is Wildflowers: jonquils and bluebells and such.
The Baron cocked his grizzled head. James, the houseboy, whom he had insisted on bringing up from the country to help in his work, strained to hold the dangling role of pattern higher.
Very pretty, he murmured.
Then we have Stripes...
And this modern pattern.
At the word modern, which he detested, the Baron was set to veto without even looking, but the paper itself, once unrolled, stilled his objection. It was unintelligible in that it represented nothing in nature, but seemed at the same time natural, as if what it represented could exist, and perhaps did, but had not yet been discovered or conceived of. He shook his head.
I am going daft. Things are swimming before my eyes.
...which, nevertheless, remained glued to the strange repetition of a central distorted sphere connected by struts to a rigidly ordered array of other, even less definable forms. They all floated in space, seeming less mindless copies of each other than a sea or family of creatures, of planktons or plants, or...
The Stripes. No, the Wildflowers. Hang it all, he said, making a joke, the only kind of which he was capable, an unintentional one, I dont care!
But we must have the room repapered in time for the Royal Ball.
Good God, is that this year again?
I told you just now, the Baroness sighed. Oh, if she had only married for love. Then by now she would be out of love with her husband and so would not find his inattention so exasperating. Instead, in thrall to a slowly-growing affection, she took the old scientists absentmindedness for a personal slight, rather than a symptom of age and worry. It is every fourth year. This winter is our turn. And I do not want people sneering at myat ourwallpaper!
The modern, abstract... he waved a loose, dismissive hand at James, who, until further orders, was still trembling his short torso to keep the last, heavy roll aloft. That one.
You are sure?
Positive, the Baron declared. He consulted his watch. Come James, time for us to prepare the antelope for another round of injections.
Once they had left, disappearing down the spiral stone stair that led to the underground laboratory, the Baroness rolled out the paper the Baron had indicated. Not at all what she would have chosen, indeed she could not now remember having seen it when ordering which samples were to be left. Very odd.
Evening, Miss, a voice said.
She turned, frowning, for it was not a servant. No one had referred to her as Miss since...well further back than she cared to remember. There was a man standing in the entrance to the ballroom, a giant, with broad shoulders, thick arms and legs, and a head of curly yellow hair, liberated from an almost comically small hat which he held in front of him with both hands.
Yes? she said. You are here to collect the samples?
Well no, Miss. He advanced some few steps into the room, grinning, having trouble keeping his eyes off the beautiful carved floral ornaments that graced the ceiling and moldings.
Grinling Gibbons, she said.
Beg your pardon?
The woodwork. It was done several hundred years ago.
Ah, they had the right stuff then, Godfrey Egan breathed, taking her wary nod for permission to admire the interior more openly. Such spaces! Why you could feed and clothe twenty families in here. Of course you would pretty much have to, I imagine, to staff any sort of function. But then domestics dont really require such beauteous surroundings now, do they?
May I ask who you are? the Baroness said calmly. And how you got in here, unannounced?
I came up, I did. From near the river. Theres passageways, you know, between all these old houses. London is honeycombed with them. No one knows quite what they are here for. Catholics running from Protestants, some say, or Protestants running from Catholics. Then again, there are those of the opinion they have to do with excreta. Human waste, you know.
Really? And you are...?
A friend of the working man, he said, pumping her hand before she had time to snatch it away. His loud, checkerboard-patterned vest smelt of tobacco, but not gin. I just popped up here to see the room. It is every bit as pretty as they say, he announced. And encountering a comely Miss like yourself, well, that is just an additional bonus for me, isnt it?
I shall have a footman show you out, she said, edging toward the bell-pull.
Grinling Gibbons. You think if I ever owned a house like this he would do work for me? Egan took a match out of his vest pocket and began picking his teeth with it, admiring the ballroom once again, the doors and windows in particular.
The Baroness turned and covered the last few steps to the cord in what she hoped was seemly haste. She pulled three times, meaning an emergency, then wheeled round, ready to fight for her virtue, if necessary. But the room, despite her back being to the polite anarchist for just a moment, was now empty. Only a whiff of stale tobacco hung in the air to mark Egans presence, or absence, rather. His match, like a calling card, lay on the parquet floor, unignited.