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Dear Lutwidge,
I am writing this letter by the kind permission of Inspector Jenkins, who sits across from me, marvelling at the simplicity of my wardrobe. No doubt he expected to find me in some impenetrable disguise, considering how futile his previous search had been. “Fancy seeing you like this,” he said upon entering. “Well, I never.” And you know, I do not think he ever has, for he is clearly one of us. (Unlike yourself, dear L, I can tell these things at the drop of a...well, never mind.) Of course he has no inkling of the fact.
You will find, appended to this note, Tabitha Bourneville’s address. In Switzerland, I see. That alone indicates the despair to which your indifference has driven the poor girl. It was my agreement with Inspector Jenkins, who made his presence here known to me a week ago, that he would use his far-flung network of informants to locate her, in return for my willing compliance in returning to He who desires me. There are many reasons for my doing this and most are, frankly, none of your business, but one is: you are using me as an excuse to procrastinate instead of going and clearing up whatever silly misunderstanding exists between you and this girl, whom you obviously love deeply. I simply cannot tolerate watching you throw away this chance. There is a short time in one’s life when things are malleable, workable, when you can, to some extent, mould the shape of your world. Then things set and that is that. Afterwards, one must break, not sculpt, one’s future. Better to get it right the first time, to get it right now, than smite one’s forehead twenty years hence, in the middle of the night, in the coffin of a cold bed. Regret is a profitless emotion. I regret nothing I have done, and indeed look eagerly upon this next phase of my drastically foreshortened life. I pray you will be able to say the same.
Tabitha, I recall, warned you, at the end of a similar letter, not to come looking for her. That was a ploy, you ass, an invitation to, by ignoring it, demonstrate the strength of your devotion. I end with a similar injunction, but mine is heartfelt. Do not come looking for me, Lutwidge. You will not find me. And the people you will find...are no fun.
Here the letter broke off, with no flowery leave-taking, just a perfunctory signature and, a joke Ghoulrich had no doubt richly savored, a drenching of eau de cologne which made taking the missive out of its envelope and attempting to reread it on the crowded train an act of courage bordering on foolhardiness. Finch finished the last stinking line and hurriedly thrust the pages back down deep into his bag. Upon returning from his dinner, and reading the note, he had thrown a change of clothes and some valuables into whatever piece of luggage was at hand, run out of the apartment like a madman and hailed a cab. It was only when the driver asked, “Where to?” that Lutwidge was stumped. Where to indeed? The letter Bradley had left revealed no clue as to his whereabouts. Only a dire warning, which Finch was wont to dismiss as his friend’s typical melodramatics, but still...where was he to go? All of a sudden he was in Rome, in November! What was he doing here? “There is a short time in one’s life...” Bradley’s voice repeated, for certain of his words, just read, were lingering in the air as strongly as the scent that accompanied them, and, “...this girl whom you love deeply.”
“The train station,” Finch said.
“Which one?” the driver asked.
“What?”
“Where are you going?”
He clawed through his pockets to find, again, the letter.
“Switzerland,” he read, and then gave, foolishly, the address as well, as if the flea-bitten nag waiting patiently to resume its arthritic trot could take him all the way to Milan and then over the Alps.
But the initial burst of enthusiasm, the exhortation that had fired him into making this grand gesture, so that the mere act of buying a railway ticket felt like a public, heroic performance, had left him now. He was cold and unshaven and in dirty clothes. The train, powered by a slow, toy-like engine, paused at the foot of each hill, trying to find the inner strength to go on. With infinite deliberation, it began its ascent. Before the light gave out, Finch had watched a fat, teetering bee suck pollen from a late bloom, lounge at its ease on the other side of his smudged windowpane, then buzz lazily off, as if this were some way station provided for aged and infirm insects rather than the sarcastically entitled “Rapido” of which his ticket boasted.
As much as he wanted to get there, Lutwidge felt his apprehension grow with every mile covered. The truth was, he had laid aside his disappointment with Tabitha, or rather generalized it into a prematurely aged, world-weary pose that corresponded all too well with his actual surroundings. The bitterness in the air, the dead leaf skittering past, the tang of late fruit and bellow of slaughtered animals, even—dare he admit it?—the nursing of a gravely ill friend, all symbolized a similar mortification of the spirit, of expectation, that he had rather prided himself on, as if he were growing up, becoming more a man than he ever realized he need be. That was why he had been particularly stung by Bradley’s accusing him of being “juvenile” in not pursuing Tabitha, whereas Lutwidge had thought his actions were just the opposite. Now he saw that the very petulance with which he responded to these jibes went a long way toward suggesting they were on the mark. It is hard, he admitted, attributing superior wisdom to a man who favors lace dressing gowns with bead fringe and trousers so baggy as to resemble petticoats. Now, of course, it would be dishonoring Ghoulrich’s fate, his mad decision to return to a life of virtual imprisonment (“comfortable imprisonment,” he could hear his friend amending) were he to ignore the summons implicit in his being given Tabitha’s location.
But what of Tabitha? He was still ignoring her, thinking all around her. He found it hard to even picture her in his mind’s eye and instead fought off the erotic demons of mere desire, faceless, generic “bits” of the female form. Surely he was not crossing the Simplon pass on a costly two-and-a-half-day journey for that, something available for a few lira on the streets of Rome. He thought of Mister MacIntyre and Doris, with whom he had spent—was it only last night?—a delightful evening. It was not so much the conversation or common points of interest Finch had enjoyed as much as watching the tendrils of their forthcoming domestic comfort unfurl, how the older man simply could not resist taking his new wife’s hand from time to time, with no other purpose than to gently communicate his affection; how Doris had thrown off the servile, crouched attitude of a domestic and seemed suddenly at ease, a kind of physical overflowing of previous boundaries, as she sat smiling, almost purring with contentment.
“When I told Her Ladyship about it, she was very nice,” Doris recounted. “He wanted to come in with me, but I wouldn’t let him.”
“What did she say?” Finch asked.
“Said was I sure? Did I know how old he was?”
“Do you?” MacIntyre frowned.
“Seventy-one,” she said promptly.
“That is correct.”
“I looked it up. He’s in The Dictionary of National Biography,” she told Finch proudly. “There was a copy in the library.”
“What else did the Baroness say?” Lutwidge asked.
“Asked if I loved him.”
Finch could see the aged novelist, his eyes half-closed, trying to visualize the scene.
“...I said of course I did, that he was my friend, father, and village lad, all wrapped into one.”
The train jolted, then came to a halt. The fat lady next to him was roused from her snoring slumber and glared as if he were responsible.
“Excuse me,” he said, having no idea where he was going, knowing only that he must get out of his seat before his arm was once again engulfed by his neighbor’s slumping bulk.
He made his way up to the front of the coach and found a conductor who explained that there had been a rock slide, blocking the tracks. Was it a matter of minutes? Hours? Days? The man shrugged. Finch refused to return to his seat, instead struck off further up the train, making the illusion of progress, at least, until he came to an open door, outside of which several men in coal-smudged aprons were gathered, along with the engineer, surveying a number of large boulders perched high between the narrow gauge rails.
“Well, come on,” Finch said, brimming with energy, the result of the fresh air on his face, perhaps, or of the sudden freedom of movement after so many hours of enforced idleness. “We will all pitch in.”
Without waiting to see if they would follow, he walked up to the first boulder—it was slightly taller than he was and about six times as round—put his shoulder to the gray rock, and pushed. A surge of strength went through him. Bending low, he felt the stone give, tip just slightly, and then, its own gravity aiding him now, roll several feet by itself before coming to a harmless stop. He turned and looked back to the assembled crew. They were gawking at him in the dusk.
“Come on!” he repeated, more peremptorily, and moved to the next of the offending obstacles. The others, shamed or inspired by his example, followed, making the subsequent tasks easier. But even when the entire crew was helping, and it was clear there was no need for Lutwidge, he continued to set his shoulder low against the seemingly immobile stone, and grunt with satisfaction as the great mass was lifted in spite of itself. When they had completed clearing the last boulder from the tracks, he walked ahead to where the locomotive’s yellow lamp illuminated the now gleaming, empty rails. He did not see Tabitha, as he had wished he could before, rather he saw himself, breathing hard, a man determined, the path leading to his beloved straight and true before him.
Back on the car, everyone was asleep. Striding over the fat woman’s legs, he unceremoniously shoved her back to the portion of the seat she had paid for. If a chunk of the goddamned Swiss Alps isn’t going to interfere with my progress, he thought, then neither is any person. He settled back down by the window, savagely alive, strangely at peace.
The Prince was eating lunch. This was a complex operation, since what had begun as an affectation had become with him an obsession, so that he kept his mask on even in the most awkward of circumstances. There was, of course, a mouth-hole, and this was fitted with a hinge so his jaw could, by moving, widen slightly the opening, but the black moire silk stained easily, showing even the slightest spill or dropped morsel of food. Since he was by nature fastidious, His Highness had had devised a special set of cutlery, long, thin forks and spoons, tiny razor-sharp knives so short they could only cut food into minuscule portions, all this to lessen the possibility of disfiguring what he had come to regard as his true face. These tiny utensils prolonged the dining process so that a simple bowl of soup and heel of bread could take him well over two hours to consume.
He had begun wearing the mask in search of anonymity. Early in life, the young prince had seen what fame and the recognition it brought could do to a man. His older brother, originally in line for the throne, was blessed with such a perfect visage it had been adopted by the nation, a face so full of youth and promise it flapped on wooden boards overhanging pubs, looked down from Town Hall walls where council meetings were held, was nailed, in cheap reproduction, over beds in rooms that contained no other decor save that of a gas jet. Then he died, when the reviewing stand at a military parade collapsed. The new Heir Apparent was in no danger of being mobbed, having his privacy invaded, or his very persona appropriated, in a similar way. The virulence with which the populace regarded him (hitherto a dim and virtually unknown Royal) after his brother’s untimely death, guaranteed his rather plain features would go unremarked even if he had made the effort (which of course he would never do) to have the late Prince’s portraits replaced. To many, to the nation as a whole, one might say, the Young Prince would now remain just that, eternally young, ever in readiness to assume the Ermine Robe. His face passed, effortlessly, from that of a living man to a sacred symbol, the epitome of all the good that had once been among us, and might be again, but was certainly not here, not now. By contrast, the Prince became a kind of catch-all symbol for the complaints those same people had about society, its lax morals, its loss of standards. This only strengthened his determination not to show himself, not to “give himself away,” as his brother so rashly had. His residences, his movements, his duties, were all kept as shrouded in mystery as his face. He bore the wait to rule, while his father’s reign clung to its old ways and shuddered to an almost frozen immobility, with as good a grace as possible, but, inevitably, became absorbed in his desires and their gratification, which want of occupation and vast wealth gave him ample means to satisfy.
Then came the contagion. For a time the Prince had told himself it was merely age affecting his appearance, but one day he could do so no longer. Though the mask, which by now he wore constantly, concealed the change in his pallor, he could not help gazing for long hours into his eyes. They were frightened and helpless, like swimmers drowning side by side in deep pits. He had taken it upon himself to control, or to attempt to control, by government intervention, the spread of the pestilence, adopting the most severe methods. It was as though he had finally assumed the mantle of responsibility for his people, only with the bizarre twist of logic that punishment of his fellow unfortunates was the kind of self-flagellation required to purge the nation of its sin.
“You have no idea how much I suffer,” he told Bradley Ghoulrich, when the young man had indignantly reported the tactics Inspector Jenkins and his men were using in their attempt to eradicate the virus.
“Yes, your caviar is positively salty with tears,” Ghoulrich had sneered.
It was at this same time he had fallen in love with the boy. A most unfortunate coincidence of events, he reflected, if indeed it had been coincidental.
He raised a thimbleful of wine to his lips. Were one to stare at this odd figure, it would be easy to suspect him of being an artfully designed automaton, his movements were so stiff and mechanical. Only the deep rending sigh he now gave, and a fastidiously napkinned tamping of the lips were proof a man lived beneath the mask.
It had been compensation, perhaps, for the necessary pain he was inflicting on that section of his peoples, that he had reached out and felt a sudden sympathy for one of them in particular. Previously, his affections had been of such a transient nature he had merely summoned those who interested him, male, female, young, old, high, low, and taken his pleasure as a child tears up a flower, roots and all, inhaling its essence once before casting the doomed plant aside. But with Bradley... He could never feel love exactly, not in the sense commoners do. There was never any question of equality, of give-and-take. His word, after all, was quite literally law. Say rather that he wanted to possess Bradley, indeed had to have him, not just his body but his soul as well. This was what had led to their quarrels, for the young man treated him with such familiarity, which he tolerated up to a point, and made such outrageous demands, withheld himself even, something the Prince had never before encountered, that he earned the enmity of the servants and made a nuisance of himself generally. It was not that the boy had no feelings for him, of that the Prince was fairly sure. Indeed he was convinced he had touched Bradley as no else had. But Ghoulrich would not let die the cursed issue of “Containment”, as it was euphemistically referred to, which came more and more to presage the break between them.
“Yes it is all very well for you to get up on your high horse,” the Prince had tried arguing. “But don’t you see? If we actually let word of this pestilence get out and tried treating it as one does, say, an outbreak of the smallpox, there would be riots in the street. Any man even suspected of being a carrier would be torn limb from limb.”
“Whereas now?”
“Whereas now tests are performed. Only those certifiably infected are dealt with, and then in a relatively humane fashion. Bodies are not left to rot in the street, as they would be otherwise, but safely incinerated so there is no chance of further contamination.”
“What about you?” Bradley challenged. “What if you used yourself as an example? What if you used your prestige and undisputed position to make plain that this curse can strike anyone, not just the poor and unlucky? Then the people would have no choice but to face what is happening, accept it, and work to defeat it, before their time comes. Or have you not the guts to tell them they too are in danger?”
It really was too tiresome, being spoken to like this. At first perhaps there was a kind of thrill, a novelty to it. But after a short time all he had wanted to do was shut the boy up.
“I made the policy,” he said slowly. “And, as such, am outside it, much as God is outside His creation.”
“What about me?” Bradley stared straight into his eyes. “I have it too, you know. Why aren’t I ‘dealt with?’ “
“You...are under my protection.”
It had ended badly, his temper getting the best of him one night during an argument no different from countless others.
An affair from which I emerge with no credit, he had thought sadly. At least it is over.
But it was not, that was what had so surprised him. He had wept, the silk actually rendered superfluous for several days while, thinking Ghoulrich dead, his tears provided their own mask of pain. And he had wept again upon hearing Bradley was alive, tears of joy, admittedly of shorter duration, followed by the resolution that he would have him back, permanently this time, no matter what the cost, either to himself or to the object of his affection. And if that was not love, he shrugged, striding through the darkened palazzo, it would have to do in the short time left him. A large ring of keys jangled from his belt. He stroked one absentmindedly, knowing the lock to which it had been mated.
“I believe Jesus existed,” Tabitha said, having been questioned about her faith. “I believe he was a man.”
“He was,” the minister answered. “He was both man and Son of God.”
“Parentage is something that must be taken on trust,” Tabitha shrugged. “Who can tell us the truth?”
“In His case, the Bible,” Reverend Gerald said pointedly. “In your case...” He turned to the baptismal records. It was an ancient book. “There are so few births recorded here,” he explained. “We are a naturally reserved people.”
“Unlike the Catholics.”
“Yes. They are perhaps too Mediterranean in their ancestry.”
He was young. She had expected the trembling, old, white-haired man whose fingers had actually sprinkled holy water on her infant brow, but this Calvinist divine was almost a boy, though blessed with the unmistakable poise of one whose living and salvation were assured. He had listened to her tale with his fingertips meeting in a point, like a chalet rooftop or the church steeple itself under which they sat, nodding from time to time, but letting her tell her story until there was nothing more. She had hoped the mere act of arranging it into an intelligible narrative would provide some relief but alas all it did was humiliate. Her predicament seemed at once damning and trivial.
“And you want to learn...what?” he asked, when she had finished.
“Anything,” she said disconsolately. “What records you can provide. I had hoped for reminiscences, but I see...”
“There have been three ministers in this parish since your parents were here. So you see there is not even much chance of a secret being passed down. Not that we are in the habit,” he added quickly, “of violating confidences.”
She smiled wanly and twisted her gloves. She had dressed as if off on an expedition, with a fur coat and boots. The wind had come round lately to blast directly from the north, and the afternoon fogs were replaced now by light snows, some of which continued in their unobtrusive, insidious way until one woke the next morning to discover the white earth had risen halfway up one’s window. It gave her the retrospective sense of having passed the previous months she had spent here underground, or what would soon be underground, as the seasons changed.
“Here it is,” he said, running his finger down the page and then across. “Or here you are, rather. ‘A girl-child, Tabitha.’ This is Reverend Louis’ handwriting. I am told he was a great comfort to the children of the parish. And used snuff. ‘Parents: Sir Richard and Lady Esme.’ They gave him six francs, which was quite generous in those days. Still is, actually.”
“That is all?” Tabitha asked blankly.
He closed the book with the cheap finality heavy volumes lend, a soft boom as if the doors of history had closed.
“What exactly were you expecting?”
“Some explanation, perhaps.”
“I can supply one,” he said. “That we are frail creatures, subject to temptation. In the eyes of the church, it makes no difference when you were conceived. If your parents were married at the time of your birth then you are, in every sense of the word, legitimate. Is that what troubles you?”
“No. It is that I was the cause of their unhappiness.”
“You cannot know that.”
“Yes. It all falls into place,” she burst out. “Everything I knew before, or sensed. The hostility and glances I have always felt. The sense of exclusion. The feeling of...sin. Not a sin I have committed but something I embody. That I am unclean!”
An older, more experienced man might have known how to comfort this smartly-dressed stranger who sat before him, but Reverend Gerald did not. He only watched in puzzled distaste as her shoulders heaved. She was not crying. It was as if some tremor were passing through her.
“Look to your Savior,” he suggested, a facsimile of whom was conveniently at hand.
There was a tapping at the window. Tabitha turned to recognize her landlady, the woman whose lost child provided the room she slept in, motioning for her to come out. Excusing herself, remembering her manners enough to place a coin in the poor box, she found the blinding, late morning sun more tonic than any consolations of church.
“They said you had come this way,” the older lady explained, laboring through the snow which was beginning to form in drifts around all the buildings. “You have a visitor.”
“I? Who could it be?”
“A gentleman. English. He came on the train. He is in our kitchen now. I thought...” she gave a gentle smile, “you would like some time to prepare yourself, rather than have him take you by surprise.”
“An Englishman, you say?”
The lady nodded, her smile growing.
“Come to take you away, perhaps? He looks most nice.”
“Yes, he is,” Tabitha said, touching her face. “Most nice. It was kind of you to come and...warn me.”
“Shall I go and tell him you are on your way?”
“Yes,” Tabitha said again. A dream was starting, that was how it felt. An idea was taking shape in her head, a solution to her problem. It was no coincidence Lutwidge had come, had finally come, for she realized now she had been waiting for him this whole time, as if all the letters she had begun and crumpled up had in fact been posted. Here was a test: Would she go to him now and accept his renewed proposal of marriage, and so taint more lives, his own and, God forbid, their children, selfishly passing on her curse; or now, having come here and found the initial error from which so much misery had flowed, would she take the brave step of undoing what should never have been done?
“Tell him I shall be down directly,” she said. “And thank you! Thank you so much, for everything!”
It would do no good to see him, to try and refuse him. One look into his eyes, so trusting and devoted, so sure of his love and her worthiness, would vanquish instantly any resolve she might have. She watched the lady carefully pick her way down the mountainside. The going was already treacherous. Once the woman was out of sight, Tabitha began to climb.
Paths still registered in the snow as slight depressions, but she soon abandoned their winding, lateral way up the mountain. She looked for the steepest grade, the slipperiest pitch. Her boots and gloved hands proved useful, as if she had planned this ascent. It was similar, in that way, to her burglarizing of the Grand Hotel, in that she was discovering a natural talent, a physical prowess and grace that had hitherto only expressed itself in such ladylike pursuits as dancing and croquet. She had been infatuated in her youth by horseback riding, as so many girls were, but the expense of keeping an animal was far beyond what her mother could afford. She remembered cantering along the shore of the sea, on a borrowed mount, the foam sweeping away the sandy beach, hissing up around the horse’s shaggy flanks, trying to suck them both back into the waves. Her attempted drowning, years later, only a few yards further out, also flashed before her. And now here she was, on a mountain, scratching, pulling herself higher and higher. She saw the appeal, why men risked their lives. It was not to conquer, but to purify. With every step, she felt her troubles left further behind. At the top she would dissolve into the very air, become a sprite, a spirit, a fairy. Such was the strange mix of thoughts, girlish and whimsical, yet fixed on doom, propelling Tabitha on her journey.
What she had never considered before was the sun. It shone off every surface, seeming to echo and redouble itself, not only blinding but disorienting her, suggesting the lie of land where land itself did not exist. Distance also lost its meaning. She was so high, for example, that the unsteady cross of the church spire was below her. She swore she could reach out and touch it, stop, for a moment, its awful wobbling. But of course there was an intervening distance, a considerable one, so that she almost lost her balance, had to sprawl on the icy surface and hug the unreceptive slope.
After the church there is nothing, she thought happily, recalling the view from below. It strengthened her, that she would meet with no more signs of mankind, only the waste of nature and the blue void that sat above. She stood, crouching slightly. The climb had entered a different phase. Before her lay only the immediate. Problems in footing and handholds, calculations of gravity, occupied her thoroughly. Concentrating on these particulars, she made astounding progress, attaining elevations unheard of for a climber without rope or pickaxe. Her shadow lay behind. She fancied it getting left further and further back, lengthening until she could finally break loose from it. And so be free.
Now a peak presented itself. Not the final one, of course. Had she looked up, she would have seen that lowering several hundred feet above, no longer in its familiar shape so beloved by tourists, but a solid, threatening, topless wall. From where she lay, holding on to the frozen crust with the tenacity of her whole being, the “peak” was a small ridge of stone, only a few inches away. She moved one hand, then a leg, felt her body slipping, and with one unthinking spring saved herself, bridged an unbridgeable gap of pure ice to cling tighter than she ever had before to the miraculously bare outcropping of rock. The gray stone, warmed by the sun, seemed to her the hide of God, poking out from beneath His creation. All of this, she thought, meaning the World, was something he exuded, a set of clothes he wore, and here was his naked flesh, warm and immutable, the deep gray-blue of slate, ageless, a fixed point in a sea of doubt. Once she had recovered (though her heartbeats still blurred like hummingbird wings) she hauled herself up the rest of the way and looked to see where she was.
A field shimmered before her. A field, it was true, of ice, but almost level, sloping down, if anything, with the few stones fallen from even higher, from Heaven perhaps, throwing long shadows that one could imagine were violets. She stood up slowly and walked out onto the floor. I have come, she thought. I have arrived at this perfect place. Above and below no longer exist. There is only the dazzling present.