“Well?” Choir asked gently.
A fanfare broke over the room. Many long-necked trumpets were seen raised high above the heads of the crowd. Royal heralds appeared, followed by a company of guards. All, even Choir and Miss Ethyl, his hand still resting on her waist, turned to watch the entrance of the new King.
“Jimmy! Come down from there this instant!” Doris called, recognizing her young brother crouched, like a small gargoyle, halfway up the wall, while at the same time she tried performing her much-practiced curtsey as those closest to the new King made their obeisance.
“Let the lad play,” Mister MacIntyre smiled, observing the monarch. “Why, he seems a quite ordinary-looking man to me. Pale, though. I suppose he does not get out much. But hardly the trembling, drooling, watery-eyed, knock-kneed idiot you were describing.”
“Hush!” she said. “You have no idea how loud you speak.”
“What are those sores, though, on the side of his face?”
The Baron Tattson was asking the same question. Remarkably similar, he said to himself, though doubtless the coincidence was, quite literally, skin-deep. Most likely some inherited disfigurement caused by the royal family’s well-known penchant for inbreeding. He, too, eyed critically the Heir Presumptive’s pasty complexion and stiff gait. Not in the best of health. That was obvious.
“We are quite pleased to be here this evening,” the Prince—for that, despite being a superannuated title, was how he continued to regard himself—told the Baroness, grappling for the first time with the awful cumbrousness of the royal plural. It was as if one’s tongue had been dipped in lead. “We realize that, what with the restrictions placed on you because of Our late father’s death, this could not have been an easy gathering to assemble.”
“It was a labor of love, Sire,” the Baroness said reverently.
“Yes, sorry to hear about your father,” the Baron mused. “Nasty business, that; what with those quacks he gathered round him towards the end.” He turned to the Baroness. “If I ever get that way, take me out back and shoot me.”
“Duly noted, dear,” she said. “Would His Majesty now care to inaugurate the ball? There are many beautiful young girls, all in their first bloom, hoping you will pluck them from the vine, so to speak, and single one out for the especial honor of having the first dance of your reign.”
The Prince, who had never danced in his life, winced at the thought, and it was this, a perfectly sincere, not at all malicious request on the part of the Baroness, which sealed his resolve to carry out Bradley’s plan. He had been, it must be admitted, somewhat dazzled by the pomp, the blaring escort, the indrawn breaths, the unblinking stares, that had accompanied his entrance. A man could get used to this, he thought. But now he saw what the office really entailed: being forced to dance when you did not want to, with young girls you had no interest in; no doubt being forced to marry and have children, go places, see things, sign documents, make pronouncements, all against one’s will, while people envied you for your “freedom,” for “not having to work.” His face, exposed publicly for the first time in years, felt tender, like a wound after the bandage is removed, but, strangely, it seemed as if the mask he had protected himself with for so long was now placed on all others, for everyone appeared a grinning grotesque, so much so that, upon arriving, he had been afflicted with the lunatic thought this was a masquerade ball. People’s eyes flitted shiftily from behind their fleshy facades. Smiles opened and closed on skeleton jaws, from which clacking sounds issued that only later resolved themselves into intelligible speech, much as the dull explanatory rumble of thunder follows the instant truth of lightning.
“No, We shall not dance,” the Prince said.
“Not dance?” the Baroness repeated. “But it is a ball. The girls will be dreadfully disappointed.”
“A mazurka, a galop, the Sir Roger de Coverly,” the Baron suggested, fondly remembering the antique dances of his youth. “Something to get things off on the right foot, so to speak.” He then went on in a more intimate tone, for he was used to rubbing shoulders with royalty. “No need to worry about cutting a fine figure, lad. You could maul one of these debs around the floor like a Klondike grizzly and she would be nothing but grateful. It is just tradition, you know.”
“I— We wish to make an announcement,” the Prince said, wrestling from his much beribboned pocket a single sheet of paper. He smiled as the hint of a familiar perfume rose from the handwritten text.
“What is he doing?” Lady Tabitha asked.
“I cannot see,” Lutwidge said. “About to read something, it looks like.”
“My God, he doesn’t write poetry, does he?”
The two, having seen each other from a distance, had to skirt the multitude to meet, and so found themselves at the back of the impromptu audience, which was fine, as it afforded them the opportunity to indulge in a tight, silent hug, the bliss of ten thousand meringues crushed at once.
“Darling,” Lady Tabitha had whispered. “I have news.”
“And I too,” Finch said. “But I am not too late? You are not—?”
He picked up her hand and, seeing no ring upon it, began kissing each digit in gratitude and relief.
When she had told him her story, of her illegitimacy and the renunciation of Sir Roderick’s fortune, of the Earl’s subsequent rejection and her walking proudly off, Lutwidge took her by the shoulders and planted an admiring kiss on her forehead.
“Brave woman,” he said.
“Foolish, more like,” she smiled. “But I discovered that getting what I wanted—or what I thought I wanted, rather—money and position, would only deepen the unhappiness that had made me crave those things in the first place.”
“Well you will find neither money nor position with me,” Lutwidge promised.
He, in turn, recounted his meeting with Egan, the anarchist’s sudden conversion, and the strange feeling he had experienced afterward, on the walk over to Tattson House, of serenity and exhilaration, as if coming to know himself, previously a stranger, for the very first time.
“But what will you do now?”
“Stand for Parliament, of course. What other option is left a penniless University graduate with no particular area of expertise? I reserved fifty pounds for my deposit.”
“You intend to be a politician?”
“The word has such a bad smell to it these days,” he frowned. “But if we all ignore the demands of public service then can we really complain when things go, as they have, so tragically awry? If being a politician means working for change, trying to ameliorate the conditions that have led us to the fix we are in today, keeping the ship of state on an even keel, then, yes, I intend to be a politician. And a damned good one. One of the first things I have discovered, now that I am shorn of my wealth, is that I am ambitious. Ravenously so. And you, Tabitha, if I may say, with your brains, with your looks, with your social talents, would make the consummate politician’s wife.”
“Is that meant to be an insult?”
“It was meant to be a proposal, actually. Though why I keep bothering to ask I don’t know. Look, you said before you did not want to wreck my social standing. Well, I have none left now. All these people care about is money, and I just gave mine away. We cannot marry at the moment. I could not even afford to buy you a ring. But tomorrow I begin my new job, as Travelling Secretary for the West Ham Football Club. As soon as I have saved enough—”
“I accept,” Tabitha said.