“Are you sure? Because it may take several months before—”
“I will wait,” Tabitha pledged, “years, if necessary. And you need never question my sincerity again.”
“I never did in the first place.”
“I am yours, wholly and utterly.”
“And I, yours, darling.”
The Prince cleared his throat. A silence fell over the room.

“THERE IS A PLAGUE AMONG US,” he began, dispensing with any preamble. He had never spoken in public before and at first shouted, so fearful was he of not being heard, of being asked, God forbid, to start over. But as he continued, and the sense of the words fused so perfectly with his own feelings, feelings he only discovered within himself as he articulated them aloud, his voice became more natural, and soon filled the room. “You have all heard the rumors, tales of a contagion which appeared several years ago among a small minority of Our citizens, a contagion whose progress, though slow, is inevitably fatal. At first, Our reaction was a cowardly one, to do nothing, to deny—worse—to hide the very fact of this disease’s existence, for fear of the panic it would cause, and the hatred that might rain down on those bearing its mark. But this capitulation to ignorance and fear has only made things worse. Uncontrolled, the plague has now spread, afflicting the poor and defenseless as well. Outside this great House, this monument to Man’s talents and taste, people are dying, horribly, by the thousands, no more than a stone’s throw away. And it is only a matter of time,” he looked up, to make sure they were all listening, “before this same fate befalls every one of you here tonight.”
My God, he does have it, the Baron thought. From where he stood, he could see the unfortunate man’s face in profile against the “modernistic” wallpaper his wife insisted he himself had picked out. The strange globular forms, connected by uneven struts, the fishy, starlike creatures commuting between them, all suddenly began to swim, or turn, rather, in a kind of synchronized pattern, as the heavenly constellations would if one were able to lie on one’s back and watch them wheel in the night sky over the course of the four seasons. They rotated slowly, with the Prince’s head at the center, his sores now seeming to pulsate in the Baron’s wide-eyed, trance-like gaze. It all “came together,” was the only phrase he would be able to use later in lamely describing the sensation. The knowledge, the image, the words he dimly heard, all became a certainty in his mind where only doubt had existed before. “A confluence,” he would say. “And if you want to call that confluence of many things, forming a truth greater than the sum of all their parts...God, fine! I have no objection.” He backed away as slowly and unobtrusively as possible.
“James!” he hissed, managing to catch the attention of the houseboy, who was still perched on his little ledge of stone. He made a peremptory gesture indicating they should both descend to the laboratory at once, for the structure of the contagion’s secret germ was now marvelously clear in mind.
“Yes, well we all have to go some time,” was the Earl’s rather heartless commentary, as he turned from the Prince’s speech and focussed his attention once more on Miss Ethyl. The clock, with its killing, unstoppable progress, had only left him a sliver of time. Yet all would be well. The Bishop, he saw, was standing not that far off. A simple question, answered with the inevitable “Yes,” would leave him safe, sound, and rich. Married, it is true, not to a great beauty, or to one whose blood stretched further back than a butcher in Stepney, but Ethyl Simons would make a loyal, submissive wife, and the money she brought could plaster over a multitude of shortcomings, flaws which were, in all fairness, not the poor thing’s fault. It was actually an act of great charity, he reflected, to raise such an unfortunate creature from the gutter, with the stunning offer of his name.
“Do not, I beg, keep me in suspense any longer,” he said. “I must have your answer and I must have it now.”
Miss Ethyl, who had felt, upon the Earl’s touching her, a warmth that raced round her body and would have fogged her spectacles had she worn them, was now a queer mix of jelly and ice. She knew—for she was not stupid, merely unacquainted, as young, motherless girls so often are, with the world and its workings—that Choir was bad for her, that his promises were insincere, his intentions as far from honorable as this sudden proposition was from being proper. But the effect he had on her was overwhelming. He appealed to all her fears. He was every child who had tortured her, every adult who had ignored her. And now he was offering the acceptance and companionship she had always desired. She felt almost duty-bound to say yes. But should she? The words of Reverend Belcher’s toast came back to her: “For love is not a fever masquerading as passion, or a forbidden fruit of seductive fragrance, but simply life, in its mundane glory, the recognition of grace in one’s ordinary dealings with another, the great mysteries revealed in the most familiar of gestures.”
“Well?” Choir asked, with just the beginning of an edge to his voice.
At this moment, James, the houseboy, who was shinnying down the thick drapes in obeyance to his master’s summons, accidentally let fall the filling of his meat pie. It landed, a mix of chopped mutton and onion, on the shoulder and sleeve of the Earl’s fine worsted jacket with a plop, much as a bird’s waste does, when let go from a great height.
“Blast!” the Earl screamed, his face contorted with rage. He brushed the offending crumbs from his person. But the grease had already permeated the fabric, leaving a trail of spots.
“I am sorry, milord,” James stammered, torn between wishing to run off and feeling compelled to remain and accept responsibility for his actions.
“You!” Choir said, now recognizing the boy. “You are that slacker who fell down in the Little Dipping three-legged race. You cost me five pounds that day. And now this!”
He grabbed James by the shoulders, lifted him off the ground, and began to throttle the poor youth.
“Stop it!” Miss Ethyl cried. “Put him down!”
“Cost me five pounds,” the Earl persisted, as if James, like a reluctant piggybank, would yield up the money if only shaken hard enough.
Miss Ethyl snatched the boy away from the Earl and set him down.
“Go,” she said.
Not waiting to be ordered twice, he disappeared amidst the draped furs and pressed trouser legs of the crowd.
“My apologies,” Choir said, in clipped tones, mastering his anger at last. “It is just that this material—” he gave one last exasperated look at his lapel, “—is of the most exclusive weave. And to have it ruined by a depraved little scamp who may very well have ‘laid down’ in a race I bet on earlier this summer—”
“You are a horrible man,” Miss Ethyl said. “I do not know how I could ever care for you.”
“Ah, but you do,” the Earl countered, recovering suavely. “And so my dear, to the matter at hand.”
“No,” she said. “I cannot marry you. Why, the very thought of it is ludicrous. No. Never.”
“No!” she repeated loudly, so that nearby heads turned. “You do not care for me at all. Just my money. Now leave me alone.”
And off she went, pushing her way through the crowd, which was still listening attentively to the Prince’s extraordinary speech. She found the Reverend Belcher and took his arm.
“Take me home, please?” she whispered.