"Seems like a complete imbecile to me," the Reverend said. "And rude, to boot."
This opinion acted like smelling salts on Miss Ethyl, who straightened up in her chair.
"How can you say that? He is a peer of the realm. He is one of the pillars of our society. I would do anything for him."
"May I bring you a glass of water?"
"No, sir." She got up, glared as if he had made some outrageous suggestion, and left the Reverend kneeling solicitously by an empty chair.
Only a few more hours of this, he assured himself, seeing they were about go into dinner. I never thought I would miss dining à deux with Mrs. Hatchitt, but after tonight...
Advice is always there for the taking. People who go off in search of gurus, read manifestos, or turn over tarot cards, fail to see that all counsel is really common sense, that its influence has far more to do with timing, the recipient being amenable, the field plowed and ready for planting, than any startlingly new outlook on life. We hear what we want to hear, and only when we want to hear it. Lutwidge found himself fingering a gold fountain pen he kept in his breast pocket, and jotting notes on the menu card that was laid before his plate.
"What are you doing?" Lady Tabitha asked.
"Nothing," he answered. "Just trying out something the Baron recommended. He admires, by the way, your 'independent character.' "
"He is sweet," she said, smiling to the Reverend on her right.
Marry Tabitha de Bourneville, he wrote, in script so small it could not be easily read. Then the pen paused. What else?
" 'The downtrodden'," the Earl was sneering from across the table. "'The unfortunate.' 'The underprivileged.' Words I particularly dislike that seem to have gained currency during my absence."
"They are merely descriptive terms," Miss Ethyl said.
"But so mealy-mouthed," the Earl protested. "What ever happened to 'bum'? 'Hobo'? 'Smelly old beggar'? Made poverty seem more romantic, I say."
"Smelly old beggar?" the Duchess queried. "Romantic?"
"The Great Unwashed. Now there is an aptly descriptive expression. What I am trying to say is: the poor will always be with us. Otherwise we would not be rich!" He laughed goodnaturedly at his own logic. "But these words pretend that isn't so. If you put a 'homeless' man in a room, does that make him all right? Not at all! He will still be a bum, merely within the confines of four walls."
"More often than not 'she'," the Baroness corrected. "For I have noticed that many of those on the streets are women, with children."
"Abandoned by the men responsible, no doubt," the Earl allowed. "Men who should be made to own up to their repulsive actions, with the gentle encouragement of the lash, if necessary."
Find Bradley, Finch wrote.
"Well," Tabitha said, in a low voice, pushing at her food but not eating a morsel. "Are you going waste our precious time annotating the menu or shall we talk?"
"How can you marry that fool?" He gave a curt nod to the still-pontificating Earl.
"I mean they say there are no jobs, but when you emerge from your carriage in brand new boots, no one is there to lay his coat over the puddle. Just to give you one example, among many."
"It is for you I am doing this."
"You are trying to make me hate you," he said. "But it will not work. I know you love me. It is as plain as day."
"Is day so plain anymore? This Tower makes everything its opposite."
"Come away with me. To Spain. To Sardinia. To anywhere that begins with S."
"You are changed," she smiled.
"Not changed. Only more myself. I have a coach downstairs. Leave with me tonight. This instant, if you like. I am quite good at fleeing the country. Perhaps you have heard."
"Dear Lutwidge, it is over. I am engaged. Look."
This whole conversation, carried out, as it were, under the glare of public scrutiny, was accompanied by the false smiles and mimed shows of interest both were known to affect so well. Lady Tabitha held out her ring, a diamond sapphire. She may as well have thrust a sword through Lutwidge's vitals.
"Remember when we first met?" she asked. "And I railed at you for being so conventional, for so slavishly defending all the Rules, no matter how silly they might be? Well, now I am counting on that. I am engaged, Lutwidge," she repeated, "to a man people consider your friend. You must not cause a scene. You must set aside all hopes you have for us. For ever."