“You mean to say you raped her?”
The Colonel looked up in horror.
“What? What kind of man do you take me for?” he sputtered. “I...I made advances, I mussed her hair perhaps. I stole a kiss. I allowed my hands to— Good God, Tabitha, is that what you thought? You made it quite clear that you would have none of it, and I beat a hasty retreat. The whole incident could not have taken more than a minute and a quarter. Why, you would not even let me take you home. Don’t you remember?”
“I remember you touching me,” Tabitha insisted.
“Yes, indeed I did. I apologize again. I...” He mopped his brow. “Your mother was ailing. I was a foolish, desperate man and I did an unspeakable thing. Lord knows I have paid for it. I have not had a bit of luck since that day.”
“You really mean to say that you did no more than embrace her?”
“Upon my honor.” The Colonel struck his chest, though there were no more medals left to clank. Instead, the quiet gesture rang true. “Hang it all Tabby, you don’t need to take my word for it. Assuming you have remained pure, and I have no doubt of that, then on your wedding night you will discover I am no liar.”
“Yes,” Tabitha said slowly.
“Am I to understand,” Lutwidge sighed. “That you do not know for a fact whether or not he actually—?”
“Well I was never taught such things,” Tabitha blushed. “What little I learned was from rumors and innuendo which, possibly, I misinterpreted.”
“I merely assumed I had been violated. Which I was! But as to the specifics... My mother was very modest about the subject, no doubt because of her own dreadful experience.”
“Esme was a tortured soul,” the Colonel agreed. “I dearly loved her. But she had given her heart to some shiftless stranger years before.”
“My father,” Tabitha said.
He stared at her.
“Yes. So you know, at last. It poisoned her, the knowledge. And that man who rescued her, Sir Richard, who truly loved her, she felt it broke his heart as well, when he realized she had given herself to another. After he sickened and died it was as if she were trying to punish herself for all her sins.”
As the Colonel’s eyes grew more accustomed to the light, he squinted in disbelief at the locket hanging round Tabitha’s neck.
“Good Christ!” he said. “How did you get that?”
“This? It was...given me.”
“There must be higher forces at work here,” the Colonel exclaimed. “That locket is mine. Or was, rather. Divine powers have seen that it descend to its rightful inheritor. It was your mother’s, you see. She wore it every day.”
“Did she?” Tabitha frowned. “I never noticed it.”
“She wore it inside her clothes, my dear. It was a strange and private keepsake. I could never tell if it was a provider of comfort, like a cross, or constant reminder of sin, like a hair shirt. She would never let me touch it. But when I went in to see her for the last time, as she lay there, finally at peace, I took it, to remember her by, and for the fear it contained something she would not wish anyone else to see.”
“It does not open,” Tabitha said. “Over the years it has jammed shut.”
“Just as well,” the Colonel said quietly, lost in memories. “Can you find it in your heart to forgive me, child? I did a terrible thing, which I see has scarred you. But for your own sake, if not for mine, can you not let go of this hate before it consumes you? I truly loved your mother. That must count for something.”
“Yes,” Tabitha said dully, touching the locket, contemplating its newfound significance. “I forgive you. The past seems nothing but pain. I must let it all go.”
“And I, in turn, forgive you,” the Colonel told Lutwidge.
“Me? What for?”
“Why, for running off with that prostitute and leaving me high and dry at the altar, that’s what for. I hope you had the decency to treat her like a lady. Lord knows I always did.”
“Lutwidge?” Lady Tabitha asked.
“I will explain later, my dear,” Finch said, shaking his head.
“What is he talking about?”
“Nothing. Merely a misunderstanding which you need not concern yourself with.”
“—not worry my ‘pretty little head over it,’ you mean?” she snapped. “You know, I wish you would stop treating me like a child. I am actually quite good at coping with things, when given the chance. Perhaps I once was not, but I am now.”
“So you are,” Finch observed, smiling at her assertive tone. “And I, in the future, must learn to respect that. May we go on now?”
“A prostitute! Really, Lutwidge. And I thought you were so pure.”
“Oh no,” he assured her. “I am a beast.”
They resumed their journey. The Colonel led them higher now. Warmth returned. Soon the walls changed from rough-hewn to smooth. The floor became more regular. Torches, then lanterns, lit their way, and doors appeared rather than mysterious black passages. Imperceptibly their surroundings had become those of large building’s cellar.
“Whom are we going to see?” Finch asked. “You say this is the Palace. But did you not hear? The Prince has abdicated. His cousin will assume the throne.”
“We are going to see the man who saved me,” the Colonel replied loyally. “He plucked me from oblivion. I was on my uppers, far worse off than you ever saw me. Not just in the material sense, but I was in danger of tarnishing my honor, as well. He heard of my plight, and sent for me. I have no idea why. Simple Christian charity, I suppose. I had never seen him before in my life. But he took pity on me. Restored my self-respect, and, incidentally, gave me some excellent advice about dress and personal toilet, on which he is expert. A regular guardian angel he has been.”
They climbed higher. A ground floor window appeared. The night sky still held dominance but within it glowed the pregnant excitement of a new day.
“Here we are,” the Colonel announced, pausing before a small door. “After you. Mind your heads.”
Lutwidge and Tabitha had to duck to pass through the low entranceway. Once inside, it was as if they were in another world. The landscape was strangely barren and rocky. The sun seemed to be setting, blood-red, behind an ancient walled city in the distance. There were some scattered articles on the ground, an abandoned spear, a blue cloak or veil, an old man’s staff. But in the center of it all, where the lines naturally led one’s eye, the illusion ceased, and one realized after another moment that one was confronted with a remarkable trompe l’oeil painting, the height and width of the wall, indeed the wall itself, depicting the Crucifixion. But Christ was no longer in the picture. The very bricks to which the rest of the fresco had been affixed had not, like the others, been painstakingly restored to their original place. Instead an outline of what His body must have looked like, just the crude shape of the cross to which He was nailed, gaped, a particularly haunting and affecting absence, as if He had, in fact, risen, as the legend claims, not merely from the historical Golgotha, but from its representation as well.
“Superstitious Venetians,” Ghoulrich said, slumped in an armchair behind them. “Dumped all those bricks in one spot—locked in a watertight chest, thank God. I had divers retrieve it—but took care to scatter the Savior somewhere else. Or perhaps he resides in a hidden gallery of the Vatican. Interesting, though, that there are none of the other figures either. Joseph, Mary, the soldiers... Leonardo was so caustic, you know. A born cynic. I think he meant to imply that they all got bored waiting and went off for a sandwich.”