"Ah Lutwidge!" The Earl strode into the room, sporting a fur-trimmed coat and gold-topped cane. "It seems our island has drifted north, wouldn't you say? Towards Siberia, perhaps. Good to see you again, my friend."
Finch turned. His former comrade's face betrayed no shame or guilt. Rather, it was rosy, boasting of good health and high spirits. He was also, Finch noted, outfitted with new, very expensive clothes, down to a pair of cream-colored spats.
"Your umbrellas," he said through gritted teeth, "have you sold them?"
"Sold them?" The Earl stopped, halfway out of his coat. Carrier obediently paused in the act of receiving it. "What an odd thought. Of course not. I had them moved to my new address. Surely you have heard."
"Of your engagement?"
"Yes. Congratulate me. She is a true English rose. Overly thorny perhaps, but quite fragrant. A fit adornment to any man's lapel, I should say. We have already leased a house on the Crescent, though it has yet to be furnished. I did, however, move some of my things there. Including the umbrellas. I hope you were not caught in a downpour."
"No."
"Good! I should have let you have your pick, as a memento of our happy bachelor days. How thoughtless of me."
"Not at all," Lutwidge said.
"No, I insist. You shall be our first guest and take back whichever one you like. As a keepsake."
"You are too kind."
Why are we talking like this? Finch asked himself. I am screaming inside while thanking the man responsible for offering me his carved umbrella!
The Earl, now disembarrassed of his coat and scarf, went to the sideboard and poured out two whiskeys.
"Let us drink to me," he proposed disarmingly. "To the end of my troubles."
"You mean the money she brings?" Lutwidge asked, with equal carelessness.
"That, and the end of the search. The end of that nagging, gnawing, harlequinade that passes for matchmaking in our barbaric society. You have no idea what a relief it will be to settle down to the life of a country squire (with the occasional raid on London, of course) while the wife arranges for the production of simple meals and squalling heirs."
"Tabitha," Finch said.
"Eh?" The Earl, seeing the drink he held out not taken, set it down on a low table.
"Her name is Tabitha," Finch repeated. "She is the woman I love. And I will thank you not to sully her name by linking it even verbally with your own."
Choir frowned. He took a sip of whiskey, was about to place it on the mantle, then raised it to his lips once more, staring at Finch all the while.
"Eh?" he asked again, as if to erase the previous outburst by going back one entire exchange in their conversation.
"Surely you know," Finch said.
"Know what?"
"That we had an agreement, Tabitha and I. That she had accepted my offer of marriage."
"I did...miss a few issues of the Times during my travels," the Earl conceded, thoughtfully stroking his mustache. "But surely Tabitha herself would have borne the recollection of such a momentous--"
"She asked that her consent be withdrawn, and I agreed. But it was with the understanding that she would not be marrying another. I intended to renew my suit, as soon as the time was right."
"Well apparently you have been betrayed by the well-known Bourneville fickleness. You know about her mother. Believe me, Lutwidge, it is not all skittles and beer, having to put up with--"
"I told you," Lutwidge interrupted, "do not stain her name by having it pass between your lips."
"A hell of a lot more than her name is going to pass between my lips," Choir laughed harshly. "What are you talking about? Do you understand what is happening? We are going to be married, Tabitha and I. It has all been arranged."
"Then disarrange it."
"Impossible. I should be penniless."
"So much the better."
"Hang it all, Lutwidge, I had no idea. You said nothing!"
"You knew I was having lunch with her."
"Six months ago. In a chophouse, for God's sake. After which you said nothing. You are so tight-lipped."
"I have a sense of honor, if that is what you mean."
"As do I."
"Then break off this engagement."
"It is too late," Choir said bluntly. "I apologize, for whatever that is worth. It is a damned awkward situation, I admit. Had I known, perhaps I would not have gone forward. Though I cannot guarantee even that, since you had your chance, and, from what it sounds like, fumbled the ball."
"Damn it, Jeffrey!" Finch cried. "This is not a cricket match. I do not know what evil spell or cheap blackmail you used to sway the young girl's mind, but I swear to you--"
"Now hold a minute there," Choir said, his own visage darkening. "I have allowed you to speak to me as I would few others. Because you are my friend. But if you persist in slandering me--"
"I am not your friend," Lutwidge replied icily. "And I will see you in Hell before I allow this marriage to go forward."
"Sir?"