Mother? she called. Father?
It was not an abandoned childs forlorn wail but an honest question, testing, as it were, the spiritual acoustics of this spot, of the mind now investing it.
Mother? Father? Are you here?
They were not. She felt no need of them. High above the world, Tabitha felt for the first time herself, not a creature cringing in its surroundings, scraping along, living by cunning, by wits, by the grace of those with more standing than she, or by the power of her own undeserved money. Here, alone, she found the simple I am that most of us take for granted. And with that came an almost violent hunger. A chop, she smiled, remembering her first meal with Lutwidge Finch. How right! How symbolically right that seemed now, that she had so craved sustenance, in its most basic, crude form, and that she had sensed he was the one who could take her there, who could show her how.
I must go to him, she said.
The next step she took, in her dazed, trance-like walk, found no ice or earth. She scrambled helplessly, clawing at the edge of an abyss that opened without warning and continued without relief. Her hands and feet, arms and legs, her very soul tried finding some notch or knob to hold onto. In that agonizing split-second, she had never wanted more to live. And then she fell.
Poor child, someone said.
Had they seen? She drew the blankets up tighter, imagining the shame her mother must have felt when they dragged her onto the sand, the sodden remnants of her dress and underthings
Shhh, the voice said again, as she whimpered. Take this, Miss. Its hot.
Hands soothed her knotted fists, tried to relax their grip. The stones speeding by, the terror escaping her lips, like her life, all spilling out, and then a merciful curtain drawn. Where was she?
To stop the fall, she opened her eyes. It was the only way. All around her, the room, caught in the act of existing, looked back at her guiltily. Bed, lamp, stained ceiling. The womannot her mother, of courseheld a spoon brimming with beef tea.
There, she encouraged, as Tabitha swallowed. You will be fine now.
It is a miracle, her husband said, standing in the background so stolidly Tabitha mistook him at first for a coat stand.
A miracle, the wife repeated sadly, understanding what belied his gruffness, that their son had been the beneficiary of no similar act of grace.
Shhh. No questions yet, my dear. Eat this. There. You were lost, coming down. In your excitement, no doubt, to meet the gentleman. It has been known to happen, especially to those not native to the region. All your senses desert you. The bright sun unhinges the mind.
Up, you were climbing. The husband put it more bluntly, as if he did not believe his wifes explanation. Up, not down.
I remember nothing, Tabitha said. She silently inventoried the state of her body. She was sore, all over, but she felt no sharp pains as each set of muscles, in turn, tentatively exercised themselves. There was instead a delicious vulnerability, as if the worst were done, and now all she need do was recover, here in the soft bed.
He has been waiting all this time, the landlady whispered, coquettishly excited, leaning forward under the pretense of offering her more tea.
All this time? How long?
Why, three days. They only found you that night. And brought you down the next morning. You had gone further than anyone thought. It was a miracle, she repeated.
Should I go get him? the husband asked, to forestall further talk of miracles.
Hush! Not yet. The poor Miss has to collect herself.
No, Tabitha said weakly. I want to see him. If you will just...prop me up, like so. Thank you.
Would you like a mirror, dear?
Let him see me as I am.
The landlady brushed back a stray lock of Tabithas hair.
You look fine. He has sat with you all these nights.
Yes. Such a gentleman. So devoted. And quite sincerely in love.
Please, Tabitha blushed. Send him in.
The lady tiptoed out, leaving the door ajar. A moment later it creaked open again. Rather than turn in bed, Tabitha waited for him to come around, but she could not resist calling, It seems we are fated for each other.
Just so, the Earl of Choir agreed, sitting beside her, putting his hand on her knee.
END OF PART III