"Sure you won't
come?" the Prince asked. His uniform, an outrageous array of undeserved
medallions which, he had been assured, were his by right; that he would,
if anything, insult various branches of the military by not wearing,
clanked like armor as he turned this way and that, trying to get comfortable.
"I have had my fill of such things," Bradley yawned, sprawling
on the divan. "Besides, there is still work to be done."
The Prince went back to adjusting his regalia. In frustration, he took
a many-rayed gold star (The Order of Saint Cyril) and bent back one
point that kept jabbing him in the arm.
"Nervous?" Bradley asked.
"Of course I am nervous. I have seen no one, except on my own terms,
for well-nigh twenty years. Now you ask me to expose myself before the
"For the common good," Ghoulrich said, "which I thought
was your duty. And for our good, as well. One night, of what I admit
will be hell, and then you will be free. Were I to come, it would taint
the purity of the gesture."
"It is not a gesture," the Prince grumbled. "You are
asking me to throw away my entire past."
"Yes. Like a soiled shirt."
Truth be told, there were other reasons besides those of ethics and
propriety prompting Bradley not to accompany his Prince to the ball.
He had felt, just this morning, the onset of what surely must be the
disease's final phase, an overwhelming sluggishness in thought and body,
a futility, a fatality. Indeed, it would be a miracle if even this little
escapade he had planned with his last cogent strength, proved successful.
Going to a ball, meeting people from his former life, trying just to
hold a teacup with his frail fingers, well, it was simply impossible.
"You sent Fauntleroy off?"
"Yes. To Wapping. He was not pleased."
"Good," Bradley sighed. "I always wanted to be a femme
fatale. Finally it seems I will deserve at least half that appellation.
Though, as usual, I have gotten things hind-to-front."
"What was that?"
He managed to sit up as his lover, now almost unrecognizable under ribbons,
epaulets, and an outlandish sash, bent low to kiss him on the lips.
"What about your mask?"
"I shall wear it en route."
"We shall see. You are leaving the same time as I?"
"No. I will wait until word of your announcement comes."
The Prince frowned.
"That puts you in danger. What if there is a reaction? What if
people storm the palace? What if--?"
"I will wait," Bradley repeated firmly. "Then go and
"You do not trust me. You do not trust me to do as I said I would."
He took the Prince's hand and kissed his ring, something he had never
done before, as if swearing loyalty, love...whatever you can honestly
offer a man who already holds your life in his hands.
"Time to go," the Prince said. "As soon as you hear that
I have spoken, you must fly."
So I will, Bradley thought. On wings of wax and feather.
After the door shut, he dropped his facade of calm and began trembling,
part from fever, part from fear. He would hide now, in his favorite
room, where his confidential agent had been instructed to reach him
with news. He willed his body slowly to its feet, and with sweat pouring
down his brow, put one foot in front of the other.
"I cannot believe
you are going through with this," the Baroness Tattson said. "And
that I am giving it my approval, allowing the ceremony to be performed
practically outside my very bedroom door!"
She stared deep into the mirror, ostensibly regarding her face, and
the thick cosmetic macadam she was laying down on top of it, but in
fact watching Tabitha as the young lady sat demurely against the back
wall of the boudoir, her white dress just a little more pronounced than
one would normally wear to a ball, at the sleeve, at the collar, and
much longer in back, indicating its intention to do double duty, later
in the evening, as a wedding gown.
"Well?" the Baroness demanded. "Aren't you going to say
anything? Aren't you going to argue with me?"
"You are right," Tabitha said simply. "In every way.
I am making a terrible mistake."
"What is that locket you are wearing?" she frowned. "It
does not go with your gems."
"I know. But Jeffrey gave it to me." Tabitha looked down at
the small bronze heart. "It was the only genuine thing he ever
did, giving me this locket. When he came to see me in Switzerland, I
was recovering from my fall. He was not at all romantic. He laid out
his proposition, well, like a business deal, even putting the ring on
the bed's blanket as if it were some glittering bait I would snatch
at. I was about to tell him no when he produced this, as a kind of afterthought,
from his breast pocket. It seemed, by contrast, so simple and heartfelt.
I imagined it was his mother's. Such a sweet offer made him seem more
"What utter tosh!" The Baroness Tattson threw down her miniature
trowel in exasperation. "Tell me the truth, Tabitha. Lutwidge Finch
"Yes. And I love him."
"Because I will not allow him to commit social suicide by running
off with a woman engaged to his best friend."
"What does he say?"
"He says not to worry. That he will arrange everything."
"And you intend to do nothing to help him? Or to help yourself?"
She shrugged her exquisite shoulders.
"You are more like your mother than I realized," the Baroness
sighed, returning to her Herculean task. "She too let fate carry
her along, as if she were some apple blossom atop a raging stream. There
is a fatal passivity in you Bourneville women. A will to unhappiness
that I find appalling."
"I know the truth," Tabitha said.
"Which truth?" the Baroness asked sarcastically. "There
are so many these days. They crowd out all else, like rabbits in Australia."
"I know that I was born only shortly after my parents were married,
that theirs was a forced arrangement, that I have been the seed and
root of much misery, and that I will not let Lutwidge, the man I truly
love, be contaminated with the misfortune I bring. If he wishes to marry
me, he must make it abundantly clear that my doing so will cause him
no harm. Only good."
The Baroness turned. How different was the person directly before her,
as opposed to the flattened reflection to whom she had just been speaking.
"Dear child," she said. "Is that why you are reluctant
to break your engagement?"
"Any torture I inflict on Jeffrey will be deserved," Tabitha
reasoned, fingering her engagement ring and looking down.
There was a knock at the door, followed by the tiara'd head of the Duchess
"Ah, there you are."
"Mabel," the Baroness said, still staring at Tabitha, who
looked as if she were about to cry. "Do come in."
"I am sorry to barge in like this, but Jeffrey insists Tabitha
come down a moment and meet the Bishop who is to perform the ceremony.
He is ancient, you know. Jeffrey wants to make sure he recognizes Tabitha
when the time comes."
"Please," the Baroness repeated. "Come in. And close
the door. It is time we spoke, the three of us."
"Ah, so that's
how they do it," James the houseboy exclaimed, watching as the
ballroom's chandeliers were lowered link by link on their chains. Descending,
they put one in mind of a celestial armada, angels in fiery chariots
here to announce the Second Coming. The candles, which had not been
changed since the last time the room was used, almost a year before,
were like great tree stumps. Servants rushed forward to gouge them out
with knives and clean the scorched bronze.
"In here," the Baron ordered, pointing to a small wheelbarrow
where the still quite serviceable chunks of wax were piled. "Waste
not, want not, I always say. We will use them down below."
"But your Lordship is coming up to see the ball tonight, isn't
he?" James asked anxiously.
The Baron smiled. To "see" the ball. As if he could, like
his young protege here, crouch in a corner and spy on people, munching
on a savory and clutching a cup of warm punch. How idyllic that sounded.
He recalled crawling under a table during a Royal visit, when he was
five or six, and fingering the beautifully-tooled boots of...my God,
that would be the new chap's grandfather. By contrast, his role tonight,
should he bother to appear, would be deadeningly ceremonial, greeting
new arrivals, being forced to admire the daughters of various matrons,
then creaking his old bones low before yet another master.
"No," he decided. "No time. That is the one advantage
of being taken for a dotty old fool. Nobody minds if you don't show
up. Instead they are relieved. Look alive with those candles, boy."
But James was still gawking at all the preparations, the chandeliers
being refitted, the shock of frantic hammering, the smell of baking,
the stray strum and toot as the musicians tuned their instruments.
A pity we never had children, the Baron reflected, staring down at the
whorl of his young assistant's scalp.
He had been working uncommonly hard lately, spurred on by the increasing
spread of the disease and by the sense, which he hoped was not wishful
thinking, that he was close, close to a breakthrough, even, dare he
say it, the creation of a vaccine. But perhaps unyoking his mind for
a night, letting it attack the familiar problem unawares, would do more
good than another twelve hours of gruelling, frontal assault. The scientific
method had gotten him this far, now he needed a bit of luck, of unsought-for
insight, to propel him past the last few final stubborn redoubts the
disease had thrown up, and grant him that penultimate goal, a clear
picture of the germ's structure, from which he could pinpoint its weaknesses
and thus mount a counterattack against its deadly effects.