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.
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 denyworseto hide the
very fact of this diseases 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
Mans talents and taste, people are dying, horribly, by the thousands,
no more than a stones 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 mans 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 ones back and watch them wheel in the night
sky over the course of the four seasons. They rotated slowly, with the
Princes head at the center, his sores now seeming to pulsate in
the Barons 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 contagions secret germ was now
marvelously clear in mind.
Yes, well we all have to go some time, was the Earls
rather heartless commentary, as he turned from the Princes 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 things 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
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 Earls 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 knewfor she
was not stupid, merely unacquainted, as young, motherless girls so often
are, with the world and its workingsthat 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 Belchers 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 ones
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
At this moment, James, the houseboy, who was shinnying down the thick
drapes in obeyance to his masters 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 Earls fine worsted jacket
with a plop, much as a birds waste does, when let go from a great
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
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 Princes extraordinary speech. She
found the Reverend Belcher and took his arm.
Take me home, please? she whispered.