off, Egan was saying.
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
hadnt 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. Whos got the device?
Carrier, Belcher answered. He wont let anyone
else touch it. You said Jesus would be an anarchist, if He were alive
Yes indeed, Egan answered, clearly not listening to echoes
of his own outdated rhetoric, looking about the room. Ah, there
he is. Rossettis 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 manservants otherwise impassive face.
He lowered the tray slightly, and allowed himself to be led off by Mr.
Rossetti, who took the time to meet Egans 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. Im 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 ones
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.
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 crows 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 boys 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 Ethyls 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 Ethyls 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.
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? Isnt 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 elses permission before
youand your fortunemay be wedded to another?
Oh, no, she replied ingenuously. I am of age. And
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. Ethyls mouth worked several times with no sound