They deposited themselves on the floor. Rather than eat or drink, Tabitha stirred her cup in a languid, hypnotic motion, staring sadly into the steaming whirlpool. Since Hepzibah had tactfully poured herself only hot water, the elaborate, makeshift service sat between them like a dolls' pretend-tea in a nursery.
"It is terrible about the King," Tabitha finally offered.
"Yes," Hepzibah said. "I had read about your engagement in the paper. Will the restrictions affect the date of your wedding?"
"Oh yes. It must be postponed. That was one of things I wished to discuss with Jeffrey." She hugged her slight frame and shivered.
"Will you eat?" Hepzibah urged, holding out the biscuits.
"I really should." She broke one in half, then in quarters, then in eighths, and transferred one crumb of that to her mouth. "You know the story of Persephone? That Greek girl who goes to Hell or...whatever they called it. Hades. And the more she ate, the longer she had to stay. That is how I feel, sometimes."
She looked up at the ceiling, which appeared unnaturally high from where they sat.
"But if the restrictions continue beyond the date specified in the contract, then you will not have to stay," Hepzibah said.
Tabitha frowned. The crumb would not melt. It rolled around in her mouth like a pebble. She could not imagine swallowing. It seemed an almost obscene act.
"Contract?"
"You know," Hepzibah said. "You are a witness."
"What are you talking about? More tea?" She tried lifting one of the heavy pitchers but Hepzibah waved her aside.
"You witnessed the signing of a loan document between myself and the Earl of Choir. I verified your signature. It was almost six months ago. Surely you remember."
"Ah yes," she smiled. That night at Tattson Hall, the endless, grimy corridors passing before her as if she stood stock-still, door after door, then the wrong door opening and the wrong man standing there, with a wax seal and an absurd, tasseled night-cap. A night cap she would soon see again. A shudder passed through her.
"I would not have mentioned it otherwise," Hepzibah went on. "But since the clause has an obvious relevance to your own situation, I assumed..."
"What clause? I do not read such things," Tabitha said. "I was taught not to. I was taught to sign what was put before me. To do what I was told."
That, of course, was exactly what Choir had realized when he found her in such a weakened, vulnerable state after her fall. Reduced to the helpless girlchild of her youth, she had been easy prey to his firm, seductively cynical arguments, all about how each of them was "bad", how their effect on others was "bad"; how, rather than harm the rest of the world, they could contain the strain of their defective amorality by marrying each other. "I will use your money," he had said frankly, inoculating her against the most obvious of objections, "and you will use my position," thus, flatteringly, raising her to the same cold Machiavellian level as himself. "We will use each other, to ease our suffering, and to protect the more susceptible from our malign influence." It was a juvenile argument, she saw now, and not even a truthful one, for Jeffrey, she realized as she got to know him better, suffered in no way from the pain he caused others, indeed he seemed to thrive on it. But she could not back out now. He already ordered her about with the air of a master. His grip on her was iron. Instead, she smiled, still trying to ingest the crumb of food (it would be her first today) she was hoping to slim herself to such a degree that she could slip out of her skin, leave him holding a lifeless husk, and escape, pure spirit, from his disgusting clutches.
"You do not read what is put before you?" Hepzibah asked indignantly. "But that is a recipe for disaster. Don't you realize that if the Earl does not marry you within a week he is obliged to transfer his proposal to myself?"
Tabitha smiled. The offending morsel was on the tip of her tongue. She pressed a napkin to her mouth and removed it.
"Surely you are mistaken," she said. "Or mad."
"Neither! I do not mean to sound coarse, but it makes my blood boil to hear you talking this way, so calm and lady-like. Your husband-to-be borrowed five thousand pounds from me. He did so with the understanding that if he did not repay the debt within six months, he would, as a method of settlement, marry me and so unite my finances with his Name."
"That is not...honorable," Tabitha said.
"No M'am, it is not. I am a moneylenderess. I make no claim to be bound by honor. I am a Jew. You people do not let us be honorable. We cannot go to your schools or work for your firms. We must run pawn shops, buy cheap, sell dear, loan at high rates, smile when we are spat on, and stay inside on Christmas Day while your ministers preach about how we killed the Savior. No, I am not bound by honor. I am bound by contracts, as is your husband."
"My husband-to-be," Tabitha corrected.
"Yes."
Even after this outburst, which surprised herself as much as anyone, for Hepzibah, as was said before, had never considered herself at all religious, she was not sure Lady Tabitha understood. Her countenance was unchanged, still pale, still perfect, with that slight redness around the eyes, that haggard tautness of one under stress, that only increases some women's beauty by summoning up the protective instinct of the onlooker.
"Why?" Tabitha suddenly asked. "Why would you want to marry him, knowing what you do?"
Hepzibah colored.
"Do you love him?"
"Perhaps," she said stoutly.
Tabitha raised her eyebrows.
"Do you?" Hepzibah retorted.
"Love him?" She took another piece of biscuit and laid it on her tongue like a wafer. Miraculously, it dissolved into sweet essence and slid down her throat. "No," she decided. "I am afraid of him."
"Well I am not."
"He will never marry you," she said, not to be unkind, but in a tone of judicious expertise.
Hepzibah, recognizing this, did not take offence.
"He may very well have to."
"He will not be able. He could not bring himself to, even if it was in his own best interest to do so. Even if he wanted to."
"We shall see."
Tabitha nodded, and continued to stare at this peculiar creature opposite her.
The clank of a key, inserted decisively into the lock, and the bolt sliding back, made both women turn.
Choir, unlike the rest of the populace, had had an excellent period of mourning. I am uniquely suited to these breakdowns of the established order, of all mores and principles, he thought, strolling up the street, refreshed and invigorated by the many nights of debauchery. It had been as if, for once, the world conformed to his own twisted perspective, all animal and exultant, with grief, like musk, a palpable excitant hanging thick in the air. It even occurred to him, as he mounted the steps to what would soon be his new home, that he might "jump the gun," so to speak, and introduce Tabitha to some of the more nuanced excesses upon which he had stumbled during the previous six nights.
Never too young to learn, he mused, thinking of the vicious urchin he had caught stealing candles from the smashed window of a shop. No doubt the summary punishment I issued deterred that boy from a life of crime.
He recalled the poignant, almost holy air the odor of wax had lent the proceedings.
"Tabitha," he sang out in a honeyed voice, not wanting the moment, even in memory, to end. "Tabitha, is that you?"
"No," Hepzibah Schlierbeck said, appearing in the doorway. "Lady Tabitha just left out the back door."
"Hang it all," he snapped, feeling his ardor wilt within him like a plant after the first frost. "What are you doing here?"
"Won't you have some tea?" Hepzibah asked. "It gets dark so early these days. The sun is almost down. And I am ravenous."
He snorted at the girlish assemblage on the floor.
"I have been 'batching' it here," he explained, tossing his coat. "Used to room with a chap at the Albany but he turned out to be a sodomite. Ran off to the Continent with some piece of fluff. Now he is back, making advances to my fiancée, of all people! Barking up the wrong skirt, I should say."
"You have heard of the restrictions?" Hepzibah asked, pouring out.
Choir did not sit but continued to pace the room.
"Yes. We are supposed to be overcome just because some old crackpot breathed his last. Did you know I am thirty-seventh in line for the throne? Thirty-sixth, now. As a child, I often fantasized about hacking my way to the Crown. I certainly had the opportunity, at garden parties and what-not, to effect wholesale slaughter on the uppermost class. But, as I grew older--thank you," he accepted a cup of lukewarm tea, "--I realized the public nature of the office would not allow me to indulge in certain private pleasures I deemed essential to my happiness."