Both men looked down, surprised to find a street urchin had penetrated their rooms. The heat of rancor had taken them completely out of themselves. Choir looked at his now empty glass uncomprehendingly. Similarly, Lutwidge gazed at the dirty lad with no recognition.
"I seen her personally, I did," the boy announced proudly, oblivious to the very monocled Earl he had been warned against. "And when I told her who my message was from, she said she wouldn't see it, nor you neither."
"All's fair in love and war?" Choir sneered. "So this is what your much vaunted sense of honor comes to. Going behind a man's back. Attempting to pass notes to his fiancée. How pathetic."
"I must see her," Finch said, snatching the note from the boy and shooing him off.
"Well you cannot. Certainly not after what you have told me now. Don't you see? That is why Tabitha, with her natural sense of propriety, has refused to see you, or read your no doubt slobbering communiques."
Finch, shocked at this snub from she who, he was still sure, loved him, sat stiffly on the sofa.
"And you shan't see her," Choir crowed, pressing his advantage, "until after we are married. I shall take steps to make sure of that, now."
"It is a bad match, Jeffrey," he said, echoing the very words Tabitha had used when he first proposed. How he had swept aside all her objections then! What had happened since, to render him so impotent? It was as if caring for her had weakened his self-assurance, his natural resolve, which were likely the qualities that attracted her to him in the first place. A paradox.
"On the contrary, it is a very good match for me. I get what I want, and I believe the woman in question gets what she needs."
"Needs?"
"Yes, Lutwidge. You see, for all your romantic twaddle, I don't believe you know Tabitha at all. Well, that is obvious from how you have miscalculated. She is a woman of the breast-beating variety. She needs punishment mixed in with her pleasure. Many females believe martyrdom is their sex's highest calling, and there will always be men, such as myself, willing to oblige them."
"There is a difference between wanting to make someone happy, and simply 'knowing' them well enough to exploit a weakness."
"Nonsense," Choir said briskly. "People do not change. You do not transform their essential natures. You make do with what you have. In her own mind, Tabitha, is, I am sure, exploiting me as well, for my name and social standing, so that she may gain ascendancy over people whom she detests."
"And that is enough for you?" Finch asked. "A marriage based on mutual exploitation? What about love?"
"Carrier!" Choir called to the manservant, then shook his head. "I cannot believe, at your age, you are still bawling on about love. Love is an invention of the middle class, old boy, along with seaside bathing and runless stockings. Really, you are betraying your origins."
"Sir?" Carrier asked, reappearing.
"My coat," the Earl said.
"But you just arrived."
"So I did. And now I am leaving." He glared at the valet until he departed. "What has gotten into him? Leave a domestic alone for a few months and he reverts to the habits of his primitive ancestors."
"It is the cold," Finch said, staring out the window from where he sat. A bonfire was raging across the street. "And the Crisis."
"Yes, well that is no concern of mine. With the money I shall get from plundering the Shepperton estate, Choir Castle will be restored to its former glory. And should any one of those swaggering ruffians who seem to be infesting the streets of London nowadays try violating my boundaries he will find his head stuck on a pole."
"Where are you going?"
"I will sleep in a hotel tonight, and send for my things in the morning." Choir hesitated. He clutched his yellow dogskin gloves and slapped them a few times into his palm. "I am sorry, Lutwidge. There. I have said it again. For the last time. Should you continue to cross me over this, I will consider you an enemy."
"Agreed," Finch called, still watching the street, not turning to wish his former friend goodbye.
The door slammed.
A few moments later, Carrier intimated his presence by a discreet clearing of the throat.
"Go away," Finch said. "If I want something to eat, I will get it myself. In fact, take the evening, Carrier. Go and have fun."
"Fun, sir?"
"Yes. Go and do whatever it is you do to relax. Or to fulfill yourself."