"See that spot
there." He pointed, crouching, so he could direct the boy's gaze.
"That is where I should place myself. A good view of the floor,
where the ladies and gentleman waltz, yet close enough to make raids
on the food. You can even spit on the whist players, if children still
do that sort of thing."
"But you said we was working."
"So we are. Get those candles downstairs, then change into your
fancy livery, the one that makes you look like a claret-colored penguin."
"But what about your Lordship?"
"I suppose I must do likewise," he groaned, straightening
his aged knees, taking one last look around the ballroom. While upstairs,
he would have to take his wife to task about the bizarre wallpaper she
The British Museum
was locked up tight, its treasures secured behind steel doors, guards
patrolling the corridors, the fence surrounding the building high and
sharp and shut. Why then, when Lutwidge Finch, doing as he had been
instructed, gave just the tiniest push to the gate, did it swing noiselessly
open? He walked onto the grounds, then up the wide, shallow, interminable
steps of the porch, and paused again before the main entrance. There
were panels, bas-reliefs (rarely seen, since visible only when closed)
showing the allegorical figure of England, a young woman in diaphanous
clothes holding a sword in one hand and a globe in the other, flying
off with various booty in tow, the Elgin Marbles, an entire pyramid,
the Rosetta Stone, a Ming vase, so that, to the modern eye, she seemed
a bit of a sneak-thief or cat burglar. Thus art, good art, he reflected,
intentionally or not, reveals the truth of the matter, even when its
conscious aim may be other, to celebrate or obfuscate. He gave England
a push and she rolled back, on well-oiled casters, inviting him in.
"Tickets, please," he half-expected the familiar, elderly
man to call from the desk, but of course there was no one. Straining
his eyes, he turned right, towards where he hoped the manuscripts were
still displayed. The satchel he carried was uncommonly heavy, containing,
as it did, his life. His old life.
"Mr. Finch?" a voice called, quiet but distinct.
"Ah, you are in Africa. One minute."
A small lantern was lit, then just as quickly covered. It did provide
enough of a glow for Lutwidge to see himself surrounded by gaunt stone
idols, and battered wood totem poles embellished with clumps of hair-like
straw and dulled sea shell eyes.
"Over here," the voice said. "I am reading a most interesting
Unlike others, Lutwidge Finch was not intimidated by Godfrey Egan's
size, even though the light from the lantern, now on the floor, caused
the man to loom even larger, merging with a shadow that towered over
the African deities in the adjacent gallery. He was wearing--unusually,
for him, though this Lutwidge could not have known--a suit of the most
severe and sober black, as if about to attend church or a fancy dress
"William Shakespeare," Egan read, squinting through the glass
of a display case. "Our greatest poet, I believe. His very signature."
He opened the lid as casually as one would a bread bin and lifted out
the precious sheet of paper. Finch made an involuntary move to stop
"Oh it's all right," Egan said. "Parchment lasts hundreds
of years. Look."
His fingers traced along the crabbed, almost illegible signature.
"An old will is what this is. Signed by 'old Will' himself. Bit
of a joke there, if you ask me. Supposed to show how sick he was. Could
hardly sign his name, they say. But I don't know. I was never much at
penmanship myself. What about you, Mr. Finch?"
"How did you get in here?" Lutwidge asked. He had not set
down his satchel, even though it made his arm ache.
"Walked in. Same as you. Do you want to touch it? The signature,
I mean. Gives me the shivers, touching the hand the wrote the immortal
sonnets and what-not. I never used to care for this place, never knew
it existed, in fact. Then some bloke suggested it for a business meeting.
Well, I was killing time, over there in the marbles room, and I began
reading the little cards they have pasted below and alongside things.
Have you ever noticed those before?"
"On occasion," Finch answered.
"I never had. To make a long story short, I was captivated. This
place is more entertaining than a music hall. I mean, how does a sword
swallower or a juggler compare to this? Sure you don't want to touch
Lutwidge reached out. His fingers brushed against the lines.
"In answer to your question," Egan went on, watching with
satisfaction, "I have friends who allow me these private moments
here. They know I am a trustworthy sort and won't pinch anything."
"Are you?" Finch asked. "Trustworthy?"
"Oh absolutely. The proof being that your throat is not cut, after
that foolish note you sent me."
"I listened at your door," Lutwidge said, being careful to
exclude Tabitha. "I felt compelled to inform you personally, and
thus give you the chance to call off your plans, before I go to the
authorities. That man you are in league with, whose rooms you are using,
whom you call Pierce, is, in fact, my--"
"Yes, yes. He came clean after I taxed him with the contents of
your message. Told me all about you, your trials and tribulations. He
vouches for your character, this Carrier chap does. Said you would keep
your word and not go to the police without talking to me first."
The weight was intolerable. Lutwidge let the satchel drop. Egan, putting
away the Shakespeare autograph, smiled, acknowledging the sound, but
did not look down.
"You are an anarchist," Lutwidge began. "You wish to
assassinate the new King. You have seduced not only Carrier, but several
other acquaintances of mine, as well. I saw them all, through the keyhole."
"What an undignified pose for a gentleman. I hope you laid down
a handkerchief first so as not to soil the knees of your trousers."
"Carrier, the Reverend Belcher, even this Colonel Carter, may be
disenchanted with the way things are--Lord knows I am, too--but I cannot
believe that they wish to die on the scaffold, or be party to the murder
of innocent people."
"D'you think?" Egan turned to him with genuine interest. "Now
your Reverend friend, and the Colonel, they may very well be what we
call fellow travellers, caught up in the circumstances, so to speak.
But your manservant...Carrier? Now in his own quiet way he has more
fire in him than I. And I think that is why he fooled me. His is one
of those inward, underground fires that you do not see coming until
it is too late. Until it is all around you."
"Call it off," Lutwidge said.
"Or what, Mr. Finch?" Egan cracked his knuckles. The snapping
of the enormous joints echoed off the high ceiling like a handful of
stones. "Or you will run off and tattle your tales to His Majesty's
Investigatory Services? I cannot see you doing that, betraying your
friends and all."
"But what good can it do, to cause more chaos and misery? Do you
really think that after the dust settles and the blood dries the poor
will be any better off than before?"
"No," Egan said frankly. "But it will make them at the
top feel worse, and that is a start. See, what you call chaos, we call
progress. I have no interest in seeing things stay as they are. Why
should I? What's in it for me?"
"And so you would kill, just for the sake of killing."
"Society type," Egan sneered. "Never worked a day in
your life, did you? Make all your money from the sweat of others. And
you have the cheek to call me a killer."
"You are right," Finch said. "Tonight is the first night
of my working life. And here is my first job. Delivering this."
He kicked the satchel with his toe. "Go on, take a look."
Egan lifted the heavy bag with apparent ease, but even his eyes widened
when he undid the top and saw what was inside.
"That is all the money I have in the world," Lutwidge went
on. "I had to liquidate several properties, sell my books and paintings.
I kept out exactly fifty pounds for my own use. That is all. The denominations,as
you see, are large, so as to make the sum manageable. Portable, you
"Blimey!" was all Egan could answer, grabbing a few of the
thickly wadded bills and flipping through them, inhaling deeply the
unmistakable and unduplicateable odor. He looked up suspiciously. "What
you bring this here for?"
"For you. If you will call off your plans for tonight, and forever
"But it don't make no sense. You know when it is to happen. You
could arrange not to be there. You could arrange for your friends to
stay away as well. Why, there must be fifty, sixty thousand..."
"Eighty-two thousand pounds, give or take a couple of hundred quid."
The lantern was flickering. Lutwidge, freed of his enormous burden,
picked up the light and trimmed the wick. Now, as if their roles were
reversed, it was he who seemed to dominate the room, shining amidst
the pagan idols and venerated texts, while Egan clutched the precious
satchel as if the former owner might change his mind and demand its
return. "If I merely warned people, even if I managed to foil your
plan, you would find another way. You would go on trying. You see, I
love my country, despite all the horrors perpetuated in its name, despite
all the evil that may be part of its very nature. I wish to change,
not destroy it. Now, do I have your word that, in return for my wealth,
you will stop all your attempts to bring down the established social
order by force?"
"What would I want to bring down the social order for?" Egan
laughed. "Hell! I might just go and buy myself a dukedom!"
"You could very well," Lutwidge smiled. "I believe you
would soon have the aristocracy eating out of your hand."
"Do you really?"
A figure entered from the far gallery and paused a discreet distance
off. Egan looked over, still clutching his treasure with both arms.
"Who's that?" he hissed.
"Me," a voice answered. "Everything all right?"
"What are you doing here?"
"It is time. The others have already left."
"What?" Unwilling to let go of his treasure, even for a moment,
Egan awkwardly dug for his watch, then cursed. "We must stop them!"
"Yes, before it is too late. Hurry!"
He went galloping off, the heavy bag swinging out from his body and
almost knocking over one of Gutenberg's earlier efforts. Finch watched
the two depart, convinced by Egan's steady stream of swearing that the
man's conversion was sincere. The doors of a coach slammed shut. After
all, were the King to die and chaos reign, the value of the satchel's
contents would be seriously reduced. He has a vested interest now, Lutwidge
The night was all moon. It slid on the air, pale and clear, blessing
each object with lucid calm. Lutwidge left the lantern burning on the
steps of the Museum and struck out across the deserted city. He filled
his lungs again and again. He felt free and terrible, brave and foolish.
His eyes stung. But each step, the soles of his shoes banging against
the frozen stones of the street, added to his strength. I am alive,
he pointed out. Without my wealth, which everyone said was my defining
characteristic. Indeed, my only quality. But here I am, still me, feeling
no different. Just lighter of heart, and more fleet of foot. He would
have quickened his pace but he was already walking as fast as he could.
He had to keep himself from breaking into a run. The city, in all its
battered, decrepit, decadent glory, was suddenly beautiful to him, a
great communal achievement, something of which he was a part. He held
out his hand and regarded it likewise. His sole possession was now his
own self, which he must love with an intensity he had never felt before.
"Lutwidge Finch," he said aloud, as if introducing himself...to
himself. He stopped. A shiver passed through him, a great yawn that
cleared everything from his skull, leaving him refreshed and deliciously
The lights of Tattson Hall twinkled in the distance.
He began to laugh. It was with that broad, good-natured, somewhat reckless
grin that he resumed his pace. He was sure of himself now. At ease with
his desires. Eager to get on with his life.
TO BE CONTINUED