“Are you all right?” Lutwidge asked.
“No. I never feel at ease when the room’s oafish third party fails to introduce his lovely companion.”
“Oh, sorry. Bradley, this is—”
“I know.” He rose totteringly to his feet and kissed Tabitha’s hand. “A moment I have waited for quite some time. You are lovely,” he said, looking into her eyes. “I am jealous.”
“That is a reversal,” Tabitha said. “It is I who have been so jealous of you.”
“No cause, no cause,” he smiled, quoting Lear. “I take it everything went according to plan, Carter?”
“Well, not exactly, sir.”
He frowned as the Colonel described the night’s turmoil.
“But his Majesty is all right?”
“Yes, sir. They took him off to his boat, where I believe he waits for you.”
“So he does. Well, not a bad job, if I do say so myself. I believe I managed to take all the variables into account.”
“You mean it has been you, this whole time,” Lutwidge asked, “controlling events from behind the scenes?”
“Do not give me too much credit,” Bradley said modestly. “I was simply trying to nudge things in the right direction. It was a novel and amusing experience. Something to pass the time, you know.”
“Surely it was more than a diversion,” Tabitha argued. “You are a virtuous man. Admit it.”
“Never!” he smiled. “And now I must be on my way.”
“But you can’t leave again!” Lutwidge said. “I just found you.”
“Alas, I must. I have fallen in love, you see. Requitedly, this time. And my lover waits, impatiently, I hope.”
“But why can’t you stay, the both of you?”
“Because it is not our palace anymore. Not that it ever was.” He took a last look at the reconstructed fresco. “I shall leave this as a gift to the nation. Undeserving philistines.”
“I do not understand,” Tabitha said.
“It will be hard enough to change things here, now that news of the contagion is official, without having a dying poofter and his nancy-friend on the throne. Didn’t you hear my speech?”
“You wrote that?” Lutwidge exclaimed. “Bradley, it was the most inspiring call to action!”
“Good God, you didn’t take it seriously, did you? I was trying to be ironic,” he groaned. “Next thing I know, you will be standing for Brompton South.”
“Well as a matter of fact that is exactly—”
“He is all yours,” Bradley told Tabitha, allowing her to help him on with his coat. “I am sorry to be in such a rush. We are making off with the Royal yacht, you see. Hoping, in the confusion of the moment, no one will notice. My friend and I intend to float through the Greek isles. I love that word, “isle,” the way it is cast in the perpetual future. ‘I’ll do this.’ ‘I’ll do that.’ ‘I’ll love you.’ The way it implies a constant tomorrow. Do you know what I mean? I suppose not. Ignore me. My mind rambles. And so must I.” He paused at the door. “I asked Carter to bring you back here partly for your own safety, but also because I wanted this to be my final picture of you two, as a happy couple, together at last. Lutwidge, my friend, you have made a fine choice. It was wonderful to see you this one last time.”
“Bradley, wait!”
“Let him go,” Tabitha said, sensing it was emotion, not rudeness, speeding his old friend’s departure.
Just a moment later, though, there was the sound of a scuffle, then a roar, such as might come from a sick and cornered lion.
“Help!” Colonel Carter called.
They found him kneeling in the hallway, not ten feet from the door. The long, evil, black handle of a dagger sprouted from Bradley Ghoulrich’s panting chest.
“Fauntleroy!” Carter screamed, “I’ll have your head for this!”
Seeing Lutwidge and Tabitha arrive, he took off in pursuit of the murderer.
“Don’t touch my blood,” Bradley said calmly, as Lutwidge took his head and cradled it in his lap.
Lady Tabitha bent over and undid his shirt. Looking at the wound, the depth to which the blade had sunk, she gave a quick shake of her head.
“It looks as if...you did not quite take all the variables into account,” Finch’s voice broke, trying to adopt the gentle, teasing tone of their youth.
“Oh, well pardon me if I failed to predict the deranged actions of a tongueless fellationist,” Bradley complained. A grimace of pain distorted his features. “What is that?”
“Nothing,” Tabitha apologized, for her locket had swung loose and was dangling before his eyes.
“No, let me see.” He raised his hand with difficulty.
“Just as well, you know. I doubt I would have made it to Greece. And to die in some seedy gambling resort like Biarritz, well, I could never have lived it down.”
“It doesn’t open,” Tabitha said, seeing him press the clasp.
“Surely it does. There is a hidden catch, you see? My mother had one exactly like this. It was given her...” he paused in wonderment, as the front sprung open to reveal the picture of a man inside the heart-shaped frame, “...by my father. This man here. It was a vanity of his, to give these lockets to the women who— How came you by his picture?”
“Your father?” Finch asked “No, it was Esme Bourneville’s locket. It is most likely a picture of Tabitha’s father.”
The three looked at one another.
“It would explain the almost incestuous fascination he has for the both of us,” Bradley told Tabitha, then turned so he was staring straight up at Lutwidge. “Perhaps you will stop pestering me now, since you have found a more proper altar at which to lay your offerings.”
“I?” Finch said indignantly. “Pester you?”
“My brother,” Tabitha said, taking his hand.
“Sister,” Bradley murmured, his eyes closing. “My, no doubt, better half. So good of you to come, at long last. Won’t you stay?”
Shots echoing down the hall, and the bellow of a man in agony, indicated Colonel Carter had already exacted his revenge.
“Bradley?” Lutwidge asked.
But his friend was no more.
*
With the modest income Lady Tabitha inherited from her late half-brother, Lutwidge and she were at last able to marry. They did so at St. Eustace’s, the Reverend Timothy Belcher presiding. The Baroness Tattson and Duchess Middleton proclaimed they had never seen a lovelier couple. At the next election, Lutwidge Finch was returned to Parliament, where his character, conviction, vision, and politically savvy wife all stood him in good stead. Indeed, when not cheering on their beloved “Hammers” at Upton Park, the couple’s Bedford Street home is rumored to be where much of the true work of rebuilding the nation takes place.
Shortly thereafter, the Reverend Belcher obtained a country living, and now resides there with his wife, the former Ethyl Simons, in a large white rectory with gingerbread trim. It is rapidly filling with children. His departure was hardly welcome news to Mrs. Hatchitt, but nothing could have prepared her for the shock of meeting the Reverend’s replacement, a woman! This, one of the administration’s first reforms (for the new monarch proved surprisingly open-minded), knocked the housekeeper for a loop from which she has yet to recover.
Godfrey Egan, with his newfound wealth, shut himself up in an isolated house on the Downs. Here he succumbed to a mania for collecting, and spent the rest of his life behind a high fence, patrolled by great barking dogs, fingering rare books which he never read, and hefting valuable bottles of wine which he could not bring himself to drink.
Carrier was never found. It was suspected the would-be assassin had thrown himself into the Thames.
Inspector Jenkins served “six years hard” for his role in the Containment Scandal. Upon his release from prison, he became a village constable in the wilds of Cornwall. Here, he took an interest in the local choral society and found he had a good voice. One night, after rehearsal, he and a fellow tenor went out for a glass of lemon squash and... But that is another story.