"But it was wrong of you to send that messenger. It reeked of the clandestine. There is nothing shameful in our meeting."
He spread his arms to indicate he was at her service.
"We are sitting next to each other at dinner," she said, then turned from him as if he were a minor relation, dutifully met, and now dismissed.
"Your friend," the Baron said, clutching Lutwidge by the sleeve. "How is his condition?"
"Bradley, you mean? I have not seen him lately, but when I saw him last, he was unwell."
"He came to me this summer. I had been monitoring the progress of the disease. He is in the final stages, I fear," the Baron whispered--a whisper that brought down loose plaster from the ceiling. "I trust that you took precautions."
"No," Finch said. "I mean, there was no need. I mean--"
"Education," the Baron lectured, waving a gnarled, club-like finger. "Until I find a cure, we must educate nancy boys such as yourself, so that--"
"I am NOT that way," Finch insisted. "If you must know, I love that woman there."
"Where?" the Baron once again grabbed his arm and followed Lutwidge's gaze. "Tabby? Ah, known her since she was a girl. Fine character. Independent."
"Very," Finch agreed, watching her graciously kiss Miss Ethyl.
"But, pardon me, isn't it her engagement to that nonentity of an Earl that we are celebrating?"
"So it is."
The Baron shook his head.
"Youth! You waste so much of your time peregrinating. Deciding this and that. Then changing your mind. Starting over again. Take my advice, young man: determine your goals and then strive for them, head down and in a straight line. Make a list, if necessary, and refer to it. Cross things off when they are done. Add items when they arise. But organize your life, direct your resources, budget your time, for there is less of all these things than you think. It all goes," his fingers made a surprisingly delicate motion, reminiscent of a puffball exploding, "in the twinkling of an eye."
The Duchess Middleton and Baroness Tattson brushed past each other so that the casual observer would not even think they were speaking. But in fact, this is what they said:
"Have you told her?" the Baroness asked, staring across the room at Tabitha.
"No, of course not," the Duchess answered, pretending to approve of how the table was laid out. "Should I?"
"I do not know. Perhaps. It is a good match, on the surface."
"On the surface, yes."
"But she should, at some point, know the truth. It may change the way she looks at things. She is not happy."
"No," the Duchess admitted. "But what we have to tell her may only make things worse."
The meeting ended as indistinguishably as it began, with the two women moving off, never having formally acknowledged the other's presence.
"I am so glad you could come," Tabitha said.
"You look lovely," Miss Ethyl gushed, almost feeling she should curtsey, Tabitha was so grand.
"I often think of our conversations, at the Hall."
"You do?"
Tabitha nodded, then looked to the Reverend.
"Oh," Miss Ethyl said. "May I present--"
"Found yourself a beau, have you?" the Earl interrupted. "I congratulate you, Miss Ethyl. And you, sir. You will discover this girl has a great spiritual nature. Would that we were Mormons or South Sea savages, that I could sample the fruits of polygamy. But, being forced to put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak, I--"
"Come dear," Lady Tabitha said, sensing no good could come of this encounter. "The Duchess is signalling."
"You see how she treats me," he said in mock pity. "To the victor, alas, the spoilt."
"Gratters awfully," the Earl called over his shoulder. "Do invite us, if the church isn't too small."
"I say," the Reverend frowned. "He seemed to be laboring under quite a misconception."
Miss Ethyl fainted. That is to say her knees buckled, but the Reverend had been watching, sensing her distress, and so was able to catch and guide her to a chair without anyone else noticing.
"Thank you," she murmured. "I had not thought I would be so affected."
"By what?" the Reverend asked. "By him?"
"Yes. You see, he and I... Well, I alone...this summer..."