“Then you do not mind” Tabitha asked.
“Not at all. It just adds to the litany of endearments I can use when addressing you.”
“What a lovely couple we shall make. Of course I have already had a wire sent off to Mr. Bellingham.”
The pitying smile remained on Choir’s face while a strange draining sensation afflicted the rest of his body. Tabitha’s grip on him, which had seemed as insignificant as a butterfly’s, now threatened to drag his suddenly hollowed-out torso to the floor. Nevertheless, he continued speaking in the excruciatingly civil tone of exchange they had settled on.
“Bellingham? You mean the late Sir Roderick’s executor? Why should you telegraph him?”
“To renounce my inheritance, of course. Sir Roderick left the estate to me because he thought I was Richard de Bourneville’s daughter. Richard—” she shook her head. “I still have trouble not saying ‘Father,’...was Sir Roderick’s favorite. I cannot, in good conscience, take his property, now that I know the truth.”
All pretense of amiability in Tabitha was gone. She almost spat these last words, which were like nails, pounded slowly into Choir’s heart.
“I was wrong,” the Bishop announced, returning on unsteady legs. “It is chartreuse. But with an underbase of kirsch.”
The smells and lights, the buzz of the excited crowd, all receded. There was a funereal calm, a desolation in Choir’s soul, as he saw the future, of which he had been about to take a large, healthy bite, crumble to ash before his very eyes. Yet outwardly (this was his great strength, and weakness too, that he showed nothing, thus fooling himself into thinking he felt nothing as well) the Earl remained unchanged.
“There is hardly need for that, my dear,” he said, looking into her scornful eyes. He spoke almost at random, probing for some remaining weak spot in her character, some twinge of guilt or susceptibility to sin that he could exploit. But already another part of him was conceiving an alternative plan, and straying, in his mind’s eye, to the clock, which showed twenty minutes to twelve. “What people think to be the truth is the truth. You are Richard de Bourneville’s daughter. At least Society says so. By renouncing the inheritance, in so public a fashion, and believe me, it will come out,” he threatened, “you are destroying your social standing. And you do care about such things, do you not?”
“That is precisely why I am giving it up.” Tabitha finally freed herself. It was not, after all, the Earl who had been clutching her, but her own neurotic grip chaining herself to this little man. And now, without even realizing it, she had let go, and was standing in front of him, both feet planted firmly on the ground. “I cared far too much about all this frippery.” She glanced around at the extraordinary scene. “...and paid too little heed to the yearnings of my own heart. But that is changed now. Will you release me from my promise, Jeffrey?”
“Go,” Choir said disgustedly. “You are of no use to me now. But I will have my ring back.”
“With pleasure. And the locket too, I suppose?”
“That?” he sneered. “A mere trinket that fell from my pocket. Your common lineage shows, my dear, in doting over such a piece of trash. No, keep the locket. It is so very ‘you.’ ”
“Charming girl,” the Bishop commented admiringly, as they watched her walk off. “In my youth, we would have called her a ‘spitfire.’ ”
“Good God,” the Reverend said. “That is my Bishop.”
“Where?”
“Over there. Talking to your Earl.”
“He is not my Earl,” Miss Ethyl giggled, squinting across the floor. By now the crowd was on tenterhooks of anticipation. “That man in the robes? He looks tipsy.”
“The Earl does not seem very well either.”
“No,” Miss Ethyl agreed.
For Choir was speaking angrily to the divine, ordering him about, it appeared.
“When he stamps his foot like that,” she went on, “he reminds me of that man in the fairy tale, when the Princess guesses his name.”
“Rumpelstiltskin.”
“Yes.”
Finally the Earl struck the Bishop’s glass from his hand and dashed it to the floor. A carpet, however, somewhat muted the gesture’s dramatic force, as the glass simply bounced away rather than shattering into a million pieces.
“Dear, oh dear,” Belcher murmured. “He is mad about something.”
They had met, the Reverend and Miss Ethyl, purely by chance, and seized upon each other as lonely people often do at such gatherings. Belcher, whose task (now accomplished) had been to open a door leading down to the tunnels, so as to insinuate Carter, Carrier and the bomb into the ballroom, was suddenly having doubts about what he was a party to, though Godfrey Egan’s confident arguments for this action still rang in his ears. Thus, eager for diversion, he was not put off by Miss Ethyl’s manner, her puzzling attacks of haughtiness followed by babbling descents into self-doubt. The result of his mild reaction to these social tics was their occurring less and less frequently so that, after only a few minutes, Miss Ethyl found herself talking to him quite easily, as she rarely could with anyone else, commenting on people in the room, even allowing him to go and bring her a second glass of punch.
“I was very moved by your toast at the Duchess Middleton’s dinner,” she told him upon his return.
“Were you? I was speaking quite extempore, you realize. No one gave me any warning. So I did not have time to write out something all flowery and full of lies.”
“It was beautiful,” she said. “All about love and its simplicity.”
“Why thank you.”
He handed her the glass. Their fingers knocked together, slopping punch over the side.
“Oh, I am dreadfully sorry,” Belcher cried.
“That is quite all right. It was my fault.”
“No, don’t let it get all over your beautiful dress. Here.”
He took her hand and dried it off with his handkerchief.
“That really...is not necessary,” Miss Ethyl said faintly.
“It is quite sticky!” he smiled, explaining why he had to rub so hard.
“Is it?” she whispered.
Inexperienced in these matters, the Reverend did not even look up and notice Miss Ethyl blushing to the very roots of her hair.
“Begging your pardon.”
A large man had shouldered his way through the throng and stood before them. Though he wore evening clothes, his appearance was still that of a village brawler, Miss Ethyl thought, with his bulbous nose and misshapen ear. This provincial air was further reinforced by his carrying a heavy black bag, as if he had just stepped off a train.
“What are you doing here?” Belcher frowned.
“Got to talk to you.” He gave a little awkward half-bow to the lady, clearly not intending to introduce himself.
“Can’t it wait?”
“No!”
The Reverend first finished wiping the last bit of punch from her fingers, then, without thinking (for he too had had a second glass) raised her hand to his lips and kissed it, before letting go.
“I shall be back in a moment.”
“Yes,” Miss Ethyl breathed. Say something else, you idiot! her mind screamed. Don’t just stand there gawking. “I... It was so nice,” she added helplessly.
He smiled at her, and went away with the large, uncouth man.