"So the nation was spared," Hepzibah said dryly.
"Oh, I would have made an excellent monarch. Justice tempered with mercy, and all that. Where is Tabitha? And what are you doing here?"
"She had to go out," Hepzibah said simply, availing herself, for the room seemed to have slipped past that invisible gradient and become suffused with evening, of her first swallow of tea since yesterday. Surprisingly, she was not hungry now. It was as if there was a spell she did not want broken. "As for myself, I came to learn your plans. You cannot marry, you know. Because of the restrictions."
"Ah," Choir smiled, "but they shall be lifted at the Royal Ball. By the new King himself."
"That is the very night of the contract's expiration."
"I have made arrangements. Tabitha and I shall be married at Tattson House, on the Grand Stair, no less, beneath that hideous, frowning portrait. But you would not be familiar with such interiors, would you? Anyhow, I obtained a special dispensation for the ceremony from the Bishop of London. It will take place well before midnight, I assure you. And then, dear lady, you must set your ambitious sights a little lower, on a more appropriate suitor, some Rueben or Isadore, of whom I am sure there are legion, thronging your delicatessen."
"It is a pawnshop," Hepzibah said quietly, setting down her cup. "You are cruel, or so you would have people think. But you know I suspect that, underneath, you are actually quite the puppy."
"A mastiff is rampant on the Choir emblem. Do you know what a mastiff is? A dog that can relieve a man of his face."
"But adorable, I am sure, when domesticated. You are playing the game well. I will grant you that. I admire this last maneuver. You are like Napoleon. Was he not at his most brilliant when the battle was all but lost?"
"Napoleon was a Frenchman with sensual lips," Choir scoffed. "I am an English noble. My success is assured. Is that all there is, just watery tea and bird food?"
"We could go out." She got to her feet and smoothed the front of her dress. "I have not eaten all day. And you must have left some of the money I lent you."
"Precious little," Choir sighed, examining her with a cold and unfeignedly critical gaze.
"It simply won't do, Hepzibah," he said, shocking her as much with his tone, soft, almost intimate, as with the use of her first name, which she would have hardly credited his knowing. "I am the end-product of three hundred years of breeding, as touchy and specialized as a greyhound. What you ask of me, simple things, I know, such as decency, to regard you as a person, a potential equal, rather than as some lower form of animal life, is, sadly, beyond me. I have been trained to do a few things exquisitely well. Unfortunately, none of them are in demand right now. And so my talents, such as they are, lie rusting for want of use. But change? Accompany a Jewess, even one so presentable and sympathetic as yourself, out to dine in public? I would cease to be me."
"We shall all cease to be ourselves one day," Hepzibah pointed out. "In the meantime, why not have some fun?"
He nodded to the pile of umbrellas rising from the bare floor.
"Do you know what those are?"
"Yes. Silly mementos of your attempts to evade true intercourse with an adult person. You cannot shock me. As I said, I grew up in a pawnshop."
"And now you want to be mistress of Choir Castle. It is too absurd."
"All I wish right now is to have dinner," Hepzibah said. "Will you take me?"
"Why not?" he shrugged. "I can always tell people you are a Russian countess. Or an American."
"And I shall tell them you are the Grand Rabbi of Lublin," she shot back, as they quit the unfurnished house.Marry Tabitha de Bourneville
Find Bradley
Get A Job
Lutwidge had preserved the menu card from the Duchess Middleton's dinner party and kept it on his person now as a kind of talisman, the once sharp edges already furry from handling. He again fixed the small square in his cupped palm and concentrated. The Baron Tattson's prescription for success, simple as it first sounded, had proved unexpectedly difficult in practice. Which perhaps is a sign of its true worth, Lutwidge considered. We tend to look past or gloss over the obvious, and bury ourselves in more seemingly complex diversions, knotty questions and grandiose schemes. But really at any given time there were only a handful of tasks one should be doing. They were just too difficult to contemplate. Tabitha, for example. He could not even see her, much less marry her, without physically breaking into the Duchess Middleton's house, where she had taken refuge. Bradley was similarly immured in the gray fastness of the Palace; now, with the Monarch's death, no doubt a hive of renewed activity and even more zealously guarded than usual. But the most unpleasant-to-face task of them all was the last: Get A Job. The words had been penned, though by his own hand, in a bold, hitherto unknown script, as if, like the oracle at Delphi, he had been "spoken through," was merely a messenger, yet the command was all the more strong for that. "Gentleman," was how he had always completed the rare official form asking for Occupation. It had never bothered him much. But lately, perhaps because of the oppressive poverty suddenly visible all around him, or the guilt by association he felt when regarding such creatures as Choir, or the intimation of mortality brought on by having witnessed Bradley's sad decay, it struck him that time was passing and that he had done nothing, contributed nothing, to this world, only taken, with grace and taste, yes, but taken nonetheless. Were he to die tomorrow he would leave behind only a well-nourished corpse. Not even a collection of umbrellas, or a parrot that could recite holy dogma.
"But what can I do?" he groaned. Much as Oriental women have their feet bound to prevent them from doing labor, and Mandarin officials grow their nails absurdly long so they can not even lift an object, Finch felt his very character had been circumscribed, so that he might be nothing more than a walking advertisement for the supposed virtues of his class. He was amiable and mild-mannered. He honored his debts. He did not make scenes. He was amusing. This very blancmange aspect of his person suddenly nauseated him. He wanted to...defecate on the carpet or eat peas off a knife, something so shocking as to withdraw the invincible acceptance he now saw himself as having gained, the acceptance of a man who voluntarily walks into a prison. But the very inanity of these fantasies showed that the shackles of conformity were within him, part of his nature, and could not be so easily burst by a cross word or petulant gesture.
"A job," he murmured, obstinately returning to the list.
He could not overnight become poet or coal miner. He was neither genius nor slave. He was a bright, educated, well-intentioned young man, words that made him want to wring out his brain like a dirty sponge.
"Will that be all, sir?"
He looked up and saw Carrier, already dressed to go out.
"Well no, actually," Lutwidge said. "What about my dinner?"
"Make it yourself," the manservant snapped.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I honestly cannot be bothered," Carrier said. "I have a meeting tonight."
"A meeting?"
"Friends," he hastily amended. "A bunch of us gather in my rooms near the Museum. You are not going out? You always go out."
"No," Lutwidge said. "I am trying to do less of that. But it is perfectly all right. I will make my own dinner. Is there anything troubling you, Carrier?"
Indeed, the valet's face had lost its ivory-like calm and looked...human. He was assuming expressions for the first time, in this case one of badly affected ease.
"Troubling me, sir? No. Just grief, perhaps, at His Majesty's passing."
"It has been difficult for all of us," Lutwidge said carefully.
"There is cheese, if you like. A bit mouldy. No bread, though. Cherries, in a tin. That is all. Mouldy cheese and cherries."
"Lovely," Lutwidge said. "You just run along now, Carrier. I will make do."
He moved to go and then paused at the mantel.
"What about the ball, sir? You will still go to that, won't you?"
"The Royal Ball? I suppose. The new King will be there. Yes. I will not need you that night, if that is what you are asking."
"Thank you, sir."
"With the Earl gone, I am prepared to double your wages, if you will attend to my needs alone."
"That will not be necessary."
"You are going with him, then?"
"Oh no, sir." He stopped again, at the door this time, and shuffled his feet awkwardly. "I may as well tell you now: I am giving notice."
"Really? May I ask why?"
"Philosophical differences, sir."
"Philosophical differences with myself?"
"No sir. One can hardly differ with a nullity, can one? Philosophical differences with the political and ethical assumptions on which my job is based." The clock chimed. Carrier's face had once more gone inscrutable. "I am late. Dreadfully sorry about leaving the larder so inadequately stocked. Two weeks, then?"
"As you wish," Finch shrugged helplessly.
He went back to the kitchen. There was indeed nothing. Cobwebs stretched from shelf to shelf. He found the cherries, but they did not inspire confidence, the tin was already opened and the fruit wizened despite floating in a slick sauce. Choir, he recalled, had always kept at Carrier about the hiring of cooks and the quality of the cuisine. Lutwidge had never much cared.
"I would like to eat, though," he muttered, eyeing an enormous, poisonously rancid-looking block of gruyére.
The door from the servant's stair opened and Lady Tabitha walked in.
"Oh," she said, though whom she had expected to meet instead was unclear. No doubt it was the shock of seeing him this soon, in back, where he seldom ventured. She had not time to prepare her face or speech. Lutwidge, in turn, looked lost, with his collar undone and in these rather shabby surroundings. He still held the peeled back tin of old cherries.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Making dinner," Finch said. "Or trying to, rather. Carrier seems to have gone off his nut. He just called me 'a nullity', gave two weeks notice, and has left the cupboard completely bare.
"Poor dear."