After Tabitha left, the Duchess Middleton dispatched a footman with the initial invitations. Waiting for replies, she amused herself first by devising a tentative menu, then by drawing a plan with the various guests situated in combinations around two fixities: herself at the head, and Jeffrey and Tabitha across from each other smack in the middle, where they could draw fire from all sides. (It was a relief, with such a small dinner party, to be able to dispense with formal seating by rank.) They would be a dazzling couple. In many ways quite suited to each other, good-looking, high-strung, brilliant socially, though somewhat touchy. The Duchess shook her head. But surely young Finch, whose suit she had first accepted, then rejected, would more likely calm Tabitha, as a rider does a thoroughbred, than the exacting Earl. A pity that had not worked out. This marriage would be a good uniting of the family branches, though, and the propping of a particularly threatened bough, for the Duchess, who lived frugally herself, could only guess at the desperate state of Choir's affairs. There was nothing dishonorable about marrying for money. Indeed, it was his duty, just as monarchs themselves are often unwilling participants in arranged unions. Still, by conventional moral standards, the Duchess wondered if what Choir was doing (and what she was tacitly helping him to do) was quite right. The girl seemed so unhappy. The sad fate of Esme Tattson, so long ago, coupled with the secret the Duchess shared with the Baroness Tattson, made for even more guilty considerations.
Word came, while she was still musing over family history, of Miss Ethyl's acceptance, as well as the Reverend Belcher's and, most surprisingly, the Baroness and Baron Tattson's promised attendance. I would sooner expect the sun to rise in the west, the Duchess thought. This does make the dinner party, if it were not already, a notable event. She played more with the placements, imagined the conversations based on mutual interests, trying to forestall clashes of opinion and, worse, ghastly lulls, as best she could. There was, of course, a mystery man, one male guest too few. A variety of faceless, unattached young men paraded before her. Whom have I met recently who has impressed me? she asked. Then she smiled. A certain rightness, and yet a certain very deep wrongness as well, presented itself to her. "Oh, that would be wicked," she said. "Or would it?" She rang for the footman--who, having just got back from running all over Town, was warming his feet by the kitchen fire--and began writing out the fourth, final, invitation.
Finch found London much as he left it, only more so. The weather, the suddenly apparent poverty, the rather more mechanical solicitude of his valet, were as nothing when compared to the one great similarity: that every building, street, and denuded tree spoke to him of Tabitha, of her beauty, of her fascination, and of her troubled state of mind, as well. He had reached that pitch in a lover's progress where the outer world simply becomes a masque celebrating the One he wishes to possess. To stare into her green eyes would be bliss. And yet her eyes were everywhere, in anything fine or funny, in a tortured, twisted piece of wrought iron, in the soft gleam of leather bindings seen through the window of a bookstore.
"How long, Carrier?" he asked impatiently.
"Since you last asked, sir? Or since you sent the note?"
"Never mind," he sighed.
What had gotten into the help lately? No doubt the messenger he had sent was laughing at him as well, not delivering his precious missive despite the accompanying pound note he had pressed into the boy's hand. "To Lady Tabitha directly," he had instructed. "Not to the butler. Not to a maid or a housekeeper. Certainly not to any monocled Earl who might try and bully it out of you." The youth had listened wide-eyed to this rogues gallery of obstacles before touching his cap and scooting off...how long ago now? He could read a clock as well as the next man. An hour, at least. And he had specifically told the boy to bring back an answer.
"Will you be dining in, sir?"
"I haven't the faintest idea."
Pacing the room, he came upon the Earl's umbrella stand, which was empty.
"Carrier," he called.
"Sir?"
"Where has his Lordship's collection got to?"
Carrier stared a moment. The hollowed elephant foot, bereft of its choked display, looked like a receptacle for crumpled paper or a humorous spittoon.
"I have no idea," Carrier said. "His Lordship must have taken them, though I do not know where."
"Rum," was Finch's only comment, as he resumed pacing.
She will come herself, he thought. Or certainly agree to meet. And then I shall carry her off, over her protests, if necessary. As for that...snake of a false friend, I have a good mind to horsewhip him on the steps of his club. To think that he thought... His mind trailed off in a tangled snarl of bewilderment and indignation. He had reached the small Swiss resort the day after the Earl and Lady Tabitha had left. A copy of the Times--Choir's, he was sure of it--had been left lying open in the station buffet, mockingly turned back to the appropriate page. Now, having gotten home as fast as he could, he examined his face as reflected in the freezing glass of the already dark window and rehearsed what he would say were she to walk through that door in the next minute.