"Why are you doing this, Tabitha?"
"Because I am a shallow, selfish person. I told you before, but you would not believe me. So I had to prove it to you. And what better way than to marry for rank? Trading my money and beauty for the privilege of looking down on those people who once thought they could squash my mother like a bug."
"You have a curious tendency when you lie," Finch said. "Your hand clenches as if it were trying to keep the truth from leaping out."
Under the table, he closed his fingers over her small, balled fist.
"Jeffrey and I understand each other," she said slowly, staring across the table at her fiancée. "We will fight like cats and dogs, but since we do not love each other, neither can inflict the mortal wound."
"He says you like to suffer."
"Perhaps I do."
"Well then I intend to make you suffer a great deal more, if that is what it takes to bring you to your senses."
"Friends," the Duchess was calling, tapping the side of her glass for attention. "Though this is far too intimate a dinner party to have formal toasts, I do think we should drink to the couple's health."
"Hear, hear," the Baron rumbled, at the other end of the table.
"And since he is practiced at the art of public speaking, indeed, will soon be preaching at the Palace, I now ask the Reverend Belcher to rise and say a few words."
Asparagus happened to be the course laid before them, which matched perfectly the Reverend's pallor upon hearing this unexpected command. He obediently rose to his feet and looked out over the titled assembly. Though he was merely standing while the others sat, the effect was like peering down from a tall building, all vertigo and nausea. Their upturned faces regarded him expectantly. There was no choice. He must speak off the top of his head.
"Friends," he began, inaugurating the toast with a blatant lie, "what is love? We grow up hearing so much about it, regard it as a land of milk and honey lying just over the next mountain, or on the far shore of the lake by which we play. Then, as we grow older, we discover that love is right here, all around us, but that it is more strange and complicated than we were led to believe, that it can bring pain and sorrow, as well as great joy. And so the world, which we also thought simple...and good, turns out to be a place of many different feelings, of shadow and light, of hope and disappointment, in which love, I would contend, presides like an all-powerful deity, remote, demanding, not quite knowable but too powerful to risk ignoring or offending. Now these two people," he smiled benignly down the table, for, truth be told, he had forgotten, in his nervousness, the names of the happy couple, "have found each other. They are no doubt in that state of anxiety that accompanies any great decision. Perhaps they have even asked themselves the question so many pose, that I, certainly, have asked myself: What is love? Some say it is madness, masquerading as poetry. Others compare it, blasphemously, I would hold, to the ecstasy of a saint. The skeptic denies its existence. The scientist would test for its presence. But after much reflection, and," he nodded privately to Lutwidge Finch, "some not insignificant adventures, I have come to believe that love is the very element we breathe, the force which animates our soul. For love is not a passionate fever, or a forbidden fruit of seductive fragrance, but simply life, in its mundane glory, the recognition of grace in one's ordinary dealings with another, the great mysteries revealed in the most familiar of gestures."
Get A Job, Lutwidge wrote, though he had not been thinking of adding to his list. The thought just popped into his head, or hand, rather.
"I think you will agree that the air is charged with feeling tonight. Surely this is proof we are in the presence of the power of which I speak, which will bless this coming together of," mercifully, the names came to him, "Jeffrey, Earl of Choir and Lady Tabitha de Bourneville, as, I pray, love will bless, or has already blessed, each of us here this evening. Ladies and gentlemen, your glasses please. I give you--"
And then the lights went out.
"Good Christ, Mabel. Have you paid the gas bill this month?" Choir called irritably.
"There is no gas," the Duchess' voice rose from the dark. "Nor candles either. That is one of the few advantages of living in proximity to the Tower. I economize."
"Look!" Miss Ethyl cried.
Those not facing the window turned. The banks of light, which had climbed the Tower in tightly packed row after row, bunched so closely that their glow melted together, presenting to the outside world a solid cylinder of fire, were now slowly being extinguished. Some were already out completely, leaving gaping holes, as if the very fabric of the sky were rent. One could make out workers, their nervous silhouettes, beating out the flames on the remaining tiers. Quickly, the Tower was going dark.
"What does it mean?" Lady Tabitha asked.
"Shhh," the Baron whispered from the end of the table. "Listen."
Cries in the streets, from all over London, and soon bells, tolling, began to grow like the first green in a scorched forest.
"The King is dead," the Baron Tattson said softly, and then, almost as a memory, for he alone of all the people here, had had occasion to use the ancient formula before, added: "Long live the King."
Several of the ladies began to cry.
"What is the proper thing to do?" Finch asked softly.
"Disperse," the Baron said, getting up. "Deep mourning, at least that was the order in my day. Windows shuttered. Mirrors cloaked or turned to the wall. No flowers displayed except wreaths of an appropriate nature. My mother, as I recall, baked a pie and had it sent to the Queen..."
His voice trailed off as he, oblivious to the others, or the dark, trod slowly out of the room.
"Evan!" the Baroness called, getting up to follow him.
"What a dreadful thing," Miss Ethyl sobbed.
"One might call it an omen," the Duchess murmured, wondering if the sounds she heard below were those of grief or looting.
"Hell!" the Earl exclaimed. "Does this mean we won't get the Abbey?"