“Of course,” the Reverend Belcher said. “I was just waiting over here because I saw you with—”
“Take me home?” she repeated, and did not let go as he escorted her to the coat room. Nor would she let go, as things turned out, for some time to come.
“What is to be done?” the Prince asked. “Do we not call ourselves a Christian nation? Yet most often I hear the name of the Savior invoked as a kind of stick used to beat others over the head with, as a sneering rebuke, or a holy excuse uttered when slamming the door in the face of the less fortunate. All this must change if we are to have any hope of survival. Money must be spent.” He looked up, pointedly, at this assemblage which represented perhaps three-quarters, if not more, of the nation’s wealth. “Hearts must be opened. Tears must be shed. For more than our bodies, the very fate of our souls is at stake. And the soul of our country as well.”
Lady Tabitha squeezed Lutwidge’s hand as they watched the effect of the new monarch’s speech on the others. He was not, admittedly, turning them all into a bunch of philanthropic saints, but one could see that people were paying more than superficial attention. The furrowed brow, the parted lips, were evidence of a seed being planted, which, in the caked and clayey mind of the rich, is no small feat. Now the even more difficult task would follow, to care for, to water, dung, plow, and protect this tender shoot, to transform a mere sentiment, given its royal imprimatur by this brave man, into action; to wrest not only money from these modern day descendants of lawless plunderers and bailiff-wielding landowners, but to convince them that their fate was inextricably linked with the lowest of low, with the poor, with the sick, with their outcast brethren and infidel neighbors. It was the prospect of this work, for which he was eminently suited, though it would call on all his powers of persuasion and determination, that now filled Lutwidge with excitement, and with resolve.
Someone tugged at his sleeve.
“Really, Mr. Finch,” Inspector Jenkins said in a hurt tone, staring forward but at the same time speaking out the corner of his mouth. His head, sitting atop a too-small starched collar, put Lutwidge in mind of a graying egg. “And here I thought I could count on you to be a solid citizen and all.”
“I am a solid citizen,” Lutwidge responded, also keeping his face forward, “attempting to hear his Sovereign speak. Do you mind?”
“Oh I do not have time to listen to speeches, myself,” Inspector Jenkins said. “I am working, you see. In charge of security.”
“Who is this little man?” Tabitha whispered.
“Hello, Lady Tabitha. Arthur Jenkins, a government friend of Mr. Finch’s. Aren’t you due to be married in a few moments? My congratulations.”
“I am not getting married,” Tabitha said.
“Well, my congratulations on that, then. Never could see much point in the institution, myself. Had a good time at the Museum, Mr. Finch?”
Lutwidge did not respond, though the back of his neck colored as he continued staring straight ahead.
“One of my men was concealed in the next room. He had the devil’s own time extricating himself from a Hottentot funerary mask. Know a man named Rossetti?”
“No,” Lutwidge answered.
“Found him just now, lying senseless behind some drapes. Thought it might be liquor at first, but that would not explain his hands being tied or his mouth being gagged, now would it?”
“This is the dawn of a new era in our history,” Lady Tabitha murmured. “Could you not at least have the courtesy to wait until—?”
“We rounded up the rest of the gang,” Inspector Jenkins continued imperturbably. “Had a man on the inside, you see. So there was no need for your rather extravagant gesture, Mr. Finch. You should have just come to me. A great deal less expensive. This Egan chap, he got away. He’s a slippery one, I’ll grant you that. And that man pretending to be a minister. He went off with a lady just before we sprung our trap. But most of the others are in custody. There is one we can’t account for, though. A fellow by the name of Jack Pierce. You wouldn’t know him now, would you?”
Lutwidge and Lady Tabitha both turned.
“You didn’t get him?” Finch asked.
“No. He was last seen with this Rossetti chap, but apparently—”
“Then he is still here,” Tabitha said. “And he still has the bomb!”
“As for myself,” the Prince said, reaching the bottom of the page, trembling slightly, for now, that the end was near, and the most revealing part of his announcement forthcoming, he felt the renewed gnawings of fear, like a pack of wolves, and fought to keep his composure, “there is too much blood on my hands for me to assume the office of Sovereign. I approved—in truth, I inaugurated—a shameful policy of quarantine and, worse, state-sponsored murder, in a futile attempt to deny not only the existence of the contagion, but to deny my own true nature as well. For you see, I too am one of those whom you call damned, a practitioner of the love that dare not speak its name, and these marks on my cheeks are those that will shortly begin to appear on many more whom fate has decreed shall suffer. Because of that, I will not be here to lead you into what I hope will be a promised land of more humanity and more compassion. I shall abdicate the throne, renouncing all its rights and prerogatives, in favor of my cousin, and leave England forever.” Here the page ended, but the Prince, though not a creative or improvisatory speaker, chose to add, “...and pass the remainder of the time allotted me with the man I love.”
What is all the excitement about? Choir wondered moodily, as he made his way through the thick of the crowd to what he assumed would be the refreshment table. Speeches always seeming to him an unintelligible waste of time, he had ignored the continued ramblings of this new Royal and was intent on drowning his sorrows in a glass of punch. “Bunch of upstart Europeans, anyway,” he muttered, consoling himself with the thought of his own far more ancient lineage.
If the truth be told, Miss Ethyl’s rejection had devastated him. Tabitha’s he could more easily accept. She was always a difficult proposition, a sportsman’s dream, needing to be played oh so carefully, the line let out at the proper moment and then reeled craftily in. To have her bite through the hook and splash away at the last moment was no disgrace. But Ethyl Simons! To be handed one’s walking papers by a grubby little representative of the shopkeeper class! It shook the very pillars upon which his smug complacency was based.
“Excuse me,” he said, savagely shouldering his way towards the head of the line. “Make way. Pardon.”
As to what awaited him now, he had no idea. Strangely, Hepzibah Schlierbeck, the fatal clause in his loan guarantee, the approach of midnight, did not enter into his musings. For Tabitha had been correct in assessing his character. The thought of marrying someone so far beneath him, so socially unacceptable, could not even be entertained, much less rationally considered by the Earl. Had he been able to do so, perhaps he would have seen how he and the moneylenderess held a great deal in common, a shared taste for sensuality and power, a certain glinting, unsentimental view of the world, and an appreciation of fine food and drink. Their brief times together, he would have had to admit, left mostly pleasant memories. There were far worse (and more deserving) fates that could have befallen him than a union with the woman who held his promissory note. But the option, the possibility, was simply denied entrance at the very portals of his thought.