“It’s off,” Egan was saying.
“What is?”
“The plan, you fool!” The former anarchist looked around shiftily. The money bag was like a ball and chain on him, hampering his freedom of movement. He had to get to a bank, open an account. Thank God they hadn’t passed the Income Tax last session. “Been a sudden change in circumstances. I feel we should give this new chappie a year or two, see if he can stop the rot.”
“But what about destroying the very foundations of society so we can start anew?”
“Bother that. Who’s got the device?”
“Carrier,” Belcher answered. “He won’t let anyone else touch it. You said Jesus would be an anarchist, if He were alive today.”
“Yes indeed,” Egan answered, clearly not listening to echoes of his own outdated rhetoric, looking about the room. “Ah, there he is. Rossetti’s telling him now.”
They saw, at the base of the stairs, the plump Mr. Rossetti, who by contrast to Egan seemed born to wear evening clothes, speaking to a Carrier, who stood stiffly at attention, not acknowledging him at all, holding all the while a large, high-domed silver salver. A shadow of irritation appeared on the manservant’s otherwise impassive face. He lowered the tray slightly, and allowed himself to be led off by Mr. Rossetti, who took the time to meet Egan’s gaze across the crowded room and nod.
“Good. All is well. He is taking him out now. A close call, that.” He mopped his brow with a bright red kerchief. “This place is crawling with government men. We had best be on our way.”
“What are you so nervous about?” Belcher asked. He had never seen Egan like this. It diminished the man, who had previously seemed to embody bravado. “You know you look like a commercial traveler with that bag.”
“That is just what I intend to do with it: travel. You coming?”
“No,” the Reverend said. “I promised Miss Ethyl—”
“Suit yourself. I’m off.”
Making no pretense of courtesy now, Egan pushed his way through the crowd, knocking aside anyone who strayed into his path, all while looking left and right, sweating profusely.
What an odd man. How could I have ever placed my fate in his hands? Belcher wondered. Thank God he is gone.
Thank God. The enormity of what he had done was suddenly borne in upon him. He had almost sold his soul! And what had saved him? Not his own will, but grace. Gratuitous grace. Undeserved grace. Grace abounding. It was like waking from a dream in which one has done something horrible and unforgivable and realizing there is still time to change one’s ways. He looked down and saw his knees shaking.
It is rude to stare, Miss Ethyl reminded herself, trying not to follow the Reverend with her eyes as the large man led him off. She was alone now, in the crowded room, and immediately felt awkward and affected. How stupid I must have sounded, she thought. He probably signalled that man to come over and rescue him. But he had called her dress “beautiful,” and then with gentle force kissed her hand, the nails of which she now fought to stop herself from gnawing like a schoolgirl.
“Hsst.”
She looked around. There was some hubbub at the stairs. She saw the Baron and Baroness Tattson finally descending.
“Hsst,” the voice called again. “Up here!”
Miss Ethyl looked almost directly above her and saw James, the houseboy, perched on a small parapet. He held in one hand a meat pie and in the other a spyglass, as if he were in the crow’s nest of a ship. Miss Ethyl fought back her natural urge to take offence at a lowly servant addressing her in such familiar fashion, and smiled at him instead.
“How did you get up there?” she asked.
“Look,” James motioned urgently, ignoring her question, pointing to the center of the crowd.
“Ah yes, the Baron and Baroness. I see them.”
“No.” The lad had to speak distinctly to be heard over the noise. “He has got his eye on you. He is coming over here.”
“Who?” she frowned.
Following the boy’s finger, she turned her attention back to the mass of people and now made out the Earl of Choir, who was firmly, purposefully, making his way towards her. The Earl, at the same moment, looked up and caught Miss Ethyl’s eye. He smiled, still across the great expanse of the Tattson Hall ballroom. In an instant, his gaze seemed to pierce her very being. He resumed his progress, more slowly now, keeping his eyes fixed on her. Miss Ethyl’s mind went blank with panic. The landscape of people seemed to part magically as he came closer. She wished to turn and run, yet knew she could not even lift her feet. Choir realized this as well, and proceeded with a leisurely grace, just as certain beasts know they are able to paralyze their prey from a distance.
“My dear Miss Ethyl,” he said, when near enough to speak. “Well, you are a sight. You look positively ravishing tonight.”
“I do?” the young woman asked, allowing her hand to be kissed for the second time in as many minutes.
“Yes, quite,” he said, examining her with the coldness of a professional couturier. “Your dress sense has improved since this summer. Or perhaps the winter fashions suit you better.”
“Perhaps,” she said dazedly. “You... You are going to be married tonight, are you not?”
“Indeed. But to whom? That is the question.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Whom shall the lucky lady be?” He glanced at the large grandfather clock in the corner, then once again trained all his masterful attention on herself. “I have been ‘stood up’, to use the common phrase. Lady Tabitha has seen fit to make a laughingstock of me. You see before you a broken man. A shell of his former self.”
“Oh dear.”
“May I get you a glass of punch?”
“No. Thank you. I already...”
“I was wondering,” Choir said, moving closer to her now, effectively cutting off her lines of visual, as well as physical, escape, “if your affairs are quite in order?”
“What? Isn’t that what people are asked when there is some risk of them dying?”
“Ha-ha-ha!” Choir laughed, showing multitudinous ranks of dazzlingly white sharp teeth. “A pawky vein of humor as well. I seem to have hit the jackpot. No, my dear Miss Ethyl, I mean, are you your own mistress? Do you require someone else’s permission before you—and your fortune—may be wedded to another?”
“Oh, no,” she replied ingenuously. “I am of age. And an orphan.”
“Excellent! Not, of course, my having missed the opportunity to know your parents, the lack of which I shall never cease to feel, but that I may now propose that you and I, together, tonight, dear girl, become as one.”
“I am sorry,” Miss Ethyl smiled. “I do not understand. Are you asking me to dance? Because we cannot start until—”
“I am asking you,” he said slowly, putting his hand around her waist, where it rested as impudently as if she were already his, “to marry me, to be Lady Choir, Mistress of Choir Castle and Environs, to be my soulmate and helpmeet, the mother of my children and the solitary tenant of my heart.”
It was as if he were not only proposing, but conducting the marriage ceremony as well. Ethyl’s mouth worked several times with no sound issuing.