"There was simply no way of knowing, Jeffrey." The Duchess looked down and picked at her dress. "You did, after all, share a suite of rooms with him. I thought he was your friend."
"Friend," the Earl echoed disdainfully. "A man in my position has no friends. Merely toadies and hangers on."
"He is really quite presentable."
"Oh?" the Earl glowered. "And how would you know that?"
"From what I have heard."
"You act as if I had no will of my own," Tabitha said, still gazing in the mirror.
"I simply do not want this chap ruining what should be a delightful evening."
She turned to him. Her milk-white skin and jade eyes were unreally beautiful.
She is fine, he thought, congratulating himself again.
"I shan't let him spoil our evening, Jeffrey. Take care you don't, though."
"How could I?" he murmured, taking her hand and pressing it to his lips. "I am the happiest man alive."
"Isn't that sweet?" The Duchess rose. "We really should be getting downstairs. I hear voices."
"Let them wait," Choir said, staring into Tabitha's eyes.
But Lady Tabitha stood as well.
"Grant me one favor," she said.
"Anything, my love."
"Be kind to Miss Ethyl."
"Who?"
"Miss Ethyl Simons. You toyed with her in a very public way this summer. Or don't you remember?"
"Might as well blame the candle for burning the moth," Choir chuckled, getting up and giving himself a cursory examination in the boudoir's glass. "Damn, we make an attractive couple!"
"Yes. Wedding Portrait of The Dorian Grays."
"Eh?"
"Never mind, dear."
The Duchess fluttered on ahead. Tabitha and Choir waited at the top of the stairs.
"Hope there will be something decent in the vittles department," Choir whispered.
"You know I love Lutwidge, don't you?" she said, staring straight ahead. The flames outside made the bottom of the stairs flicker.
"Do you now?" Choir smiled. "Well, isn't that unfortunate?"
"Yes."
Then, as if choreographed, they both went down to the party, arm in arm.
"If only I could find the germ's structure," the Baron was saying. "Then it is possible I could concoct some sort of vaccine. But its very shape eludes me. It is so cunning."
"I thought you were not supposed to speak of this," Finch said softly.
"It is all we should be speaking of," the elderly scientist retorted. "I am sick and tired of people going about their business as if nothing was wrong. A society of ostriches, that is what we are, minutely studying grains of sand while a tidal wave roars up the beach and threatens to engulf us all. Nobody minded when it was merely an eccentric fringe of our world that was affected. And nobody minds now that the contagion has spread to the poor. By the time it comes to your neighbor and your self it will be too late."
"Don't be morbid, dear," the Baroness cautioned, then turned relievedly to the stairs. "Ah, here they are!"
"Doesn't she look beautiful?" Miss Ethyl sighed.
"Oh, I don't know," the Reverend replied. "Rather artificial, I should say."
"No." Miss Ethyl stared. "She is perfect."
In the greetings and congratulations that followed, Lutwidge hung back. But he did not want to appear sulking, and so at last went forward, shaking hands with the Earl.
"Good of you to invite me," he said, meeting the noble's eyes.
"Good of you to come," Choir said, with equal edge.
He moved on to Lady Tabitha.
"Hullo Lutwidge," she said.
"Congratulations."
"On what?" She regarded him blankly. "Ah, this. Yes, I have done rather well for myself, wouldn't you say?"
"Extremely."
"We must talk, of course."
"I had hoped to."