“A glass of punch!” he barked, breaking through at last to the front. “Make it a large one. Oh.”
For, in fact, his disoriented, head-down pacing had led him not to the empty table where the refreshments cooled, forgotten by everyone else in the room except the Earl, but to the small area of space surrounding the Prince himself, and the “line” he had imagined himself shoving past was none other than the attentive crowd of shocked auditors, still trying to digest the momentous news the unwilling, and apparently doomed, sovereign had just imparted.
Chimes were heard in the distance. The clock was striking twelve.
“Sire,” Choir said instantly, and got down on one knee, bowing low, as he had been taught, or perhaps merely remembered from portraits of his fabled ancestors swearing fealty in medieval times. To those who witnessed the scene, made memorable by its subsequent drama, this gesture seemed to summon up and express all their emotions, the pity and respect they felt for the Prince, and the collective longing to live in a better time, a time in which they would not be made lonely by their own greed and contempt; yet it was performed—if only they knew!—by a man who was not even aware of, much less cared for, what had just been said. But he was the perfect courtier, and here proved the fact, playing his role, for which there was at last a call, to perfection.
Before the Prince could respond and tell him to rise, there came a shrieking commotion from the top of the stairs. On the great landing, beneath the Maastricht Tattson, Carrier was holding high his silver platter, from which trailed, the lid now being removed, a thin stream of smoke.
“Strawberries and cream!” the disgruntled manservant shouted in a hoarse, cracked voice. “Whiskey and soda! Press my trousers! Iron my shirts!”
“Carrier,” Lutwidge called. “Stop what you are doing and come down this instant!”
But the valet seemed in a trance, descending the stairs, balancing the tray with his familiar skill, while continuing to carry on a dialogue with an apparently invisible devil.
“Shine my shoes! Dust my coat! Not that tie, this tie! Adjust my boutonniere! Well do it yourself, I say! Do it your own bloody self!”
A few steps from the bottom, he stopped and, gripping the banister for support, tossed the smoking bomb so it rolled to a halt directly at the feet of the Prince, who, along with the rest of the crowd, watched in mesmerized horror as the sputtering fuse gave one final shower of sparks. Then, simultaneous with the explosion itself, the Earl hurled himself headlong, shielding the monarch, so his chest and arms embraced to themselves the flash of light and sudden, deafening roar.
Pandemonium followed. There were screams everywhere, along with the smell of gunpowder, as people trampled each other running for the exits. Inspector Jenkins took a steel whistle from his pocket and blew it shrilly. Identically dressed men seemed to appear from all directions.
“There!” He pointed up the stairs at Carrier, who had paused a moment to admire his handiwork, before turning and resuming his flight.
The Royal Guard, meanwhile, closed ranks around the Prince.
“Get him away,” Inspector Jenkins shouted. “Get him in the coach!”
“Darling,” Lutwidge asked anxiously, “are you all right?”
“Yes,” Lady Tabitha said.
They stood trembling, as the panic swirled all around them.
“But where...” she looked at the floor, “...where is Jeffrey?”
And indeed there was no sign of the Earl, or rather there were far too many signs, everywhere, the gobbets of gore stuck high on the great chandeliers, the wisps of burnt material floating through the acrid air, the spatterings of blood ruining debutantes’ gowns, the empty frame of his monocle, still attached to its purple ribbon, were all that remained of Jeffrey, Eighth Earl of Choir. His title had become vacant.
“Hurry!” someone said, appearing through the smoke, urging Lutwidge and Lady Tabitha away.
He turned and they followed him, allowing themselves to be led toward what seemed a solid wall. A door appeared, and down stone steps they went, still running. It was dark. They held on to each other as their guide forged ahead. He seemed familiar with this subterranean network of passageways which branched off and rejoined themselves repeatedly. The gray stone walls, lit by nothing more than the occasional hole leading to the surface, through which faint moonlight filtered, were wet and mossy to the touch.
“Where are we going?” Lutwidge called.
As the sound of the general melee faded behind them, they slowed their pace. Tabitha tried to hold up the hem of her dress. She and Lutwidge shivered. They were now beyond the walls of Tattson House, with its exorbitant heat, and found themselves instead beneath the freezing streets of London.
“To the Palace,” Colonel Carter said, turning. “My instructions were to watch out for your safety. And bring you with me after his Majesty’s announcement.”
They were taken aback by the Colonel’s change in appearance. Used to the rather seedy, ex-military man, they could see, even in the relative dark, that the change to civilian clothes, and a final acceptance of his true hair color, made him a more grand and avuncular figure. He had kept his mustache, a sentimental link to the past, but trimmed its curled ends so he no longer appeared to be taking snuff off the back of a small bird. The transformation was wholly salutary, Finch thought, but he was surprised to feel Tabitha, still in his arms, stiffen, her back fairly arch, as if she were a cat, about to spit.
“Didn’t quite see what was going on,” the Colonel admitted. “Such a glorious occasion. Beautiful gowns, lovely floral arrangements. And then that Pierce fellow with the bomb had to go and ruin it all. I was supposed to stop him, of course, but then we all got called away by the head man, Egan, so I thought the danger was passed. Imagine my surprise when Pierce comes prancing down the stairs like a music hall performer! My face was red, I can tell you. Luckily I was able to make sure you two got out all right.”
“I did not even recognize you,” Lutwidge said.
“I did a stint in Military Intelligence,” the Colonel said modestly. “Know how to make myself inconspicuous. Just a matter of turning sideways at the right moment, really. You are all right, aren’t you, Tabby?”
Rather than answer, Lady Tabitha glared at him and would not take another step.
“Well, we ought to be going,” the Colonel said uneasily, taking out his watch and consulting it, as if they were in a theater bar during the interlude rather than gunpowder-singed dinner clothes and a prehistoric system of caverns.
“This man,” Tabitha said, finally able to speak, the words stuck so long in her throat loosing themselves at last, “is evil. He took advantage of me when I was only thirteen. He...robbed me of my innocence.”
“Yes,” the Colonel said. “Terribly sorry about that. You know, I have always meant to bring it up, on the rare occasions we have met since, but somehow the time never seemed right. First there was your mother’s funeral, then—”
“Is what she claims true?” Lutwidge demanded.
“Tabitha’s mother and I... Well, you must understand that it was a different time then, and I was extremely lonely. Rather confused, as well. It was more of a sentimental outburst, perhaps. I thought the girl had conceived a passion for me. I realize now she was just under orders from her mother not to quit my side. I did, ages ago, it feels like, take certain liberties, one afternoon, under the Promenade, for which I deeply apologize. Tabitha, can you forgive me?”