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tom rayfiel


Finch had no choice but to take Lady Tabitha to lunch. The excuses he had produced (conjuring them like rabbits from a magician's conspicuously empty hat) were fast running low. Why, others wondered, did he not wish to be seen with one of the most acclaimed beauties of the season? It was hardly because his own handsomeness would be eclipsed. Those in society could no more fail to notice the alabaster brow and amused, faintly contemptuous lips of Lutwidge Finch, heir to the foodstuffs--though he himself referred to them as "comestibles"--fortune, than they could overlook His Majesty's four-and-six dashing through Piccadilly Circus at six o'clock each evening. That is to say they did so at their peril. Yet the trout were boned, the cotillions danced, and still our hero kept his distance. As for Lady Tabitha, she was aware of the drama inherent in his stillness, but acted her own part to perfection simply by doing nothing at all, save bat her fan when whatever dim beau paying court failed to realize his duty to run off for more iced lemonade, or smile mysteriously from within the smooth, high walls of her maidenhood, a princess waiting to be rescued from a tower.
Too familiar to broach the subject in any but the most direct terms, the Earl of Choir, Finch's closest friend, with whom he shared a rambling suite of apartments at the Albany, ventured one morning over the debris of breakfast, "I say old man, do you intend to carry on like this indefinitely?"
Finch's countenance was obscured by the Times, columns of inscrutable ink with a crease running down the middle.
"Carry on?" he echoed ironically. "By which you mean the opposite, I suppose."
"She is there for the taking," the Earl smiled. "Not rich, but you don't care about that. Luminous eyes, satin skin, exquisite grace, and quite well-spoken, I am told."
"Arsenal is away to Tottenham," the newspaper riposted. "There will be riots tonight on the Seven Dials Road."
"I've half a mind to make a play for her myself," the Earl went on, hoping this would fire his friend to action.
And indeed the curtain fell, revealing the frank, sensible, manly face so well-known to hostesses and club men. He reached across the table for a cigarette.
"It is too tiresome," Finch grumbled. "You, of all people. My shield, I thought, from such petty speculation. Who has put you up to this? Confess."
"Baroness Tattson," the Earl admitted. "She was, after all, my mother's second cousin."
"And something in relation to the lady in question as well, yes?"
"Even more distant. But she fears for the poor orphan's future, as we all do."
"Do we?" Finch puffed playfully. "Yet a moment ago you were speaking of determining the lucky girl's fate yourself."
"If I were a free man, I might very well. But as you know, such a union as I enter into must preserve my lands and retainers."
"And Lady Tabitha...?"
"...has no money. But a fine pedigree. A title that goes clear back to, I don't know, some chap who came over with William Orange. It is a match made in heaven, or, better yet, Mayfair, where, as you know, the true work of forging the next generation is done."
The bell rang. Carrier, the manservant they shared when in Town, padded silently across the carpeted expanse.
"You may inform the Baroness Tattson," Finch yawned, getting up now and stretching, "that I have a rendezvous with Lady Tabitha at Simpson's, at one o'clock this afternoon."
"Simpson's!"
"A private room of course. She confesses a taste for the louche and I convinced her that an English chophouse was as close to the gutter as I could allow her delicate sensibilities to stray."
Mr. Hardheart was ushered in, though not offered a chair. He stood with his hat in his hands, working the brim around, a gaunt man in his fifties, looking from side to side, whether out of nervousness or in awe of the exotic, faux-Oriental decor it was impossible to say.
"Well, out with it Hardheart," the Earl said irritably, though he well knew the only reason the agent would intrude this way, uninvited and so early in the morning.
"Begging your pardon, my Lord," the man stammered, attempting to indicate with a jerky nod that perhaps Finch would be so good as to--
"I have no secrets from my friend. A note is due, I take it."
"Just." The long sheet of foolscap he withdrew from his pocket trembled slightly.
"Let me see it," Finch said.
"No!" In that peremptory command one could hear his mighty ancestor, Lord of the Horse under Henry at Agincourt.
"My dear fellow," Finch went on, "the amount can only be paltry to me. I would take the same pleasure in relieving you of its irritation as I would swatting a fly that had lit on your brow."
Mr. Hardheart, misunderstanding their conversation, flinched as though the younger man had offered to horsewhip him.
"Leave it on the credenza," the Earl said.
"But begging your Lordship's pardon, it is due--"
"I said leave it!" the nobleman snapped. "A messenger will return it to you with the sum required shortly."
"Very good, my Lord."
Carrier, whose vanishings and reappearances were positively astral, materialized long enough to show the trembling factotum out.
"Sixty pounds," Finch sighed, walking over to look at the note, though taking care not to touch it. "Why allow yourself a moment's disquiet over this? Surely our Savior on this day, so many years ago, performed some miracle which must now be commemorated with an act of charity." A thick leather wallet was produced from his breast pocket.
"Put that away," Choir said.
"I will when you chase that awful look from your face. Am I not a friend?"
"In such situations a peer of the realm has no friends," the Earl replied, snatched up the note, and walked off toward his own quarters.
"Begging your pardon, sir." Carrier held both a hat and umbrella. "Ten o'clock. You told me to remind you specifically."
"Quite." Finch tore his eyes from the long hallway down which his comrade had disappeared. "I shall be dressing for dinner tonight, Carrier."
"Very good, sir."

* * *

It was at this time the question of the Eparchy raged not only in drawing rooms across the nation but in both Houses and indeed the Palace itself. Finch, whose views on the subject were well known, would hardly have approved of Bradley Ghoulrich's costume that April morning. A long, flowing burnoose capped with a scarlet biretta seemed more a mocking mimicry than any salute to the departing prelate. Yet, he had to admit, his classmate of years past managed to carry off the ensemble with style. Beside the correctly dressed Finch, Ghoulrich seemed a more daring, "interesting" type. Though really, Finch thought, glancing down at the ruby red shoes, one could easily mistake him for a gardenia.
"You are too good," Ghoulrich repeated in his flutey soprano, "coming all the way out here to see me." All the way being Pimlico, at that time not so fashionable a district as it has since become. Neither man looked at the other but instead surveyed the mighty Thames, its flagged schooners and belching coal barges seeming to take part in a fluid game of chess.
"I respect you, Lutwidge. I hope you know that. In spite of everything."
The unsteadiness of his companion's walk was no doubt due as much to a morning's draught of absinthe as the aforementioned vermilion heels. Finch waited for the substance of the summons that had brought him "all the way out here" so promptly.
"They say you are to be married," Ghoulrich went on, seemingly at random. Small talk, product of small minds, he used to say, during those long silent rainy Cambridge evenings, when the two of them would stare for hours without speaking. It was that silence that cemented the bond, which time and circumstance had since done their best to undo. Finch risked a slight gesture, plucking at a stray bit of robe that had caught on his friend's sleeve. The cavernous face--"made to be ravaged," another tragic witticism from their youth--turned and gave him a quick affectionate smile.
"Marriage," Finch mused. "I sometimes wonder at the vampire-like fascination it holds for others. Were I to marry, all those wagging tongues would be stilled in disappointment. Or bitterness."
"But you will."
"Marry? I suppose. It is in the nature of things. My nature, that is to say. You should consider it yourself, Bradley. A loving wife may be just what you need."
His companion laughed, but the laughter quickly transformed itself into a string of wracking coughs. They paused along the Esplanade.
"A wife!" Ghoulrich yelped. "Oh Lutwidge."
"I have to be somewhere," Finch consulted his watch, "in twenty minutes."
"Yes, bring me to the point, please. My mind wanders these days. I cannot tell if it is a foretaste of immortality or merely another sign of decay."
"You are not so different," Finch said gently. "Just tired, it seems. Have you seen a doctor?"
"Let us walk, shall we?"
And so they resumed.
"I have a commission for you, Lutwidge," his friend finally said. The stiff, still bitter spring air seemed to brace him. He held his face at an angle, jutting into it. "You have always been discreet about my family. I admired that."
"Hardly discretion, simply manners,"Finch murmured.
"You are the soul of both, but nevertheless the time has come to confirm what you may have already suspected: I am illegitimate."
"I suspected nothing."
"I am not surprised. You have a naive purity about you. Whereas it has often seemed to me that my whole life has been an attempt to embody the dark and sinister connotations of my origins. But oddly, no matter how illegitimate" I have tried to act, no matter how low I have sunk, no matter how vigorously I have rubbed my face in the dirt, it has only made me feel more honest, more truly human, more legitimate, dammit, than those buttoned-up banker boys one sees alighting from their cabs each morning intent on another day's boredom."
"You are exciting yourself." Finch was alarmed by his friend's flushed cheeks and hard, serious expression, a look which would have surprised those who took Ghoulrich for a fop. "I always suspected you of being a moralist-gone-wrong."
"Let us turn."
With the wind at their backs now, the two progressed more quickly. Their conversation seemed to gather momentum as well, speeding to its conclusion.
"I am not long for this world, Lutwidge. And many of my happiest moments have been spent with you. Don't, I beg, interrupt. This is a rehearsed speech and I would not want it botched by the audience. I cannot give you the small sum I was left by my dear mother. That would mean nothing. And I cannot give you some ratty old keepsake," --he touched his flowing robe as an example--, "since we hardly share the same taste. What, then?"
For a moment the question became more than rhetorical. Ghoulrich seemed genuinely confused, his red-rimmed eyes almost crossing in a concentrated frown as he tried untangling his knotted skein of thoughts.
"Have you seen a doctor?" Finch repeated.
"Bugger doctors. Where was I?"
"You said something about a commission."
"Yes! Thank you. What I propose is to give you a task to perform. Now that may seem a strange kind of legacy, but really, Lutwidge, what does a man like you, graced with almost every natural advantage, lack? Perhaps a sense of purpose, a mission. I often see you as an idle Lancelot, trotting along on your steed, waiting to be vouchsafed a vision of the Grail."
"And what is to be my knightly task?" Finch asked dryly.
"Nothing so dreary as looking for an antique cup, I assure you." Ghoulrich turned serious, looking away from his friend as he spoke. "My father, from what I have gathered, was a fiend of the vilest sort. God knows how many other brats he spawned in this city alone, not to mention the Continental watering holes he haunted. My mother, may she rest in peace, was of good parentage and seemed to excite in him some genuine affection. Her family, of course, disowned her, but she did have a small inheritance, which he even deigned to augment from time to time. Thus, I have been able to lead a comfortable life," this last phrase delivered ironically as he clutched a scented handkerchief to his mouth and hacked away, his whole body shaking. "Such a disgusting way to die," he muttered. "It seems my last earthly task is to find the beauty in it. Anyhow, there must be others, unwanted products of his less fortunate unions. I have always been far too cowardly to investigate this, afraid of where it might take me. I lack the common touch, thank God. Whereas you seem at ease no matter what the surroundings. And so your task, Sir Lutwidge of the Clear Gaze, is to find my natural brothers and sisters, should any exist, and apportion my estate among them, in the hopes it will ease the pain this cursed seed of my father seems to carry. I can only be happy that one line, at least, ends here with me. I am exhausted," he said, as if in answer to a question.
"Sit with me here on this bench. Let me call a coach to take you back to your rooms."
"No. It's these damn heels." His feet rid themselves of the blood-red encumbrances which he then hooked on his thumbs, and continued walking.
Finch could not help but grin at the painted toenails, could not help also a quick look to see if they were being observed, and a censorious, "Really, Bradley!"
"So reliably shockable, Lutwidge. One of your many charms." He leant contentedly on his friend for support. "Do you accept?"
"You know, I do not believe you are sick at all. I believe this is another one of your poses."
"Do you accept?" Ghoulrich insisted.
"If it will make you happy."
"It will indeed. And you too, I hope."
"Then I do."
"I don't suppose you would be interested in a pet macaw as well? Every shade of green known to man, taught to recite sections of the Athanasian Creed?"
"I am not the London Zoo," Finch snapped in mock irritation. "Consider my position."
"Oh I have, Lutwidge. Often. In the wee hours especially."
The Royal yacht, back from its winter moorage and refitting at Yarmouth, gave a coarse, possessive blast as it passed under the Commoners' Bridge. Other vessels on the river answered and raised their purple-striped pennants of fealty.


* * *

Tattson House did not welcome visitors. The gate, refusing to acknowledge its reduced, ornamental status, stood spiked and shut to the street, as if angry mobs or alien, longhaired horsemen from the north were about to storm its guard post...in which sat, by contrast, a rather genial, inebriated footman, his livery askew, one hand attempting to make a tiddly "wink" over another, into a cup. Choir did not notice this. He had been trained to ignore servants, insofar as they did nothing to slight, by confusing Precedence or Address, his honor. He merely rapped his cane smartly against the iron bars and waited to be admitted. No, he would not be announced. He would see the Baroness privately. No, it was not necessary to show him to the lady's rooms. He knew the way.
The house itself was irreproachable and intolerable. An excess of varnish, lacquer, and stain seemed determined to rob the walls and furniture of all warmth.The actual temperature of the place, however, was suffocatingly hot, the result of the Baron Tattson's scientific experiments which he often carried out for days at a time, shutting himself up in the laboratory and stoking the furnaces to unbelievable heights. No one knew what he was attempting to discover, only that he had become increasingly obsessed and eccentric through the years. He never went out and indeed was rarely seen. Choir could not remember, he reflected, climbing the soft, magenta-carpeted Grand Stair, what the old boy even looked like. An ancestor glared down at him from the landing. Tattson of Maastricht, the young nobleman automatically recalled. Lost an arm and, it was rumored, his manhood at that famous sea-battle. He had taken good care to engender his progeny before leaving the country and declared himself, upon his return, "well out of it." An old story, heard, and for some reason always laughed at, in clubs and smoking rooms. Smut. Tattson of Maastricht, old and looking at the painter as if about to set the hounds on him. Well out of it, indeed, whereas I owe fifty thousand pounds, Choir added moodily. And must dance attendance on this harridan in hope of crumbs.
"There you are, Jeffrey."
The Baroness spoke as if they had an appointment, clandestine and anxiously awaited, to which he was late. Not the case at all, Choir wanted to point out. But dissimulation, he found more and more, was his bread and butter. He moved through the heavily scented air of the old witch's boudoir with the laid-on ecstasy of a practiced courtier.
The Baroness Tattson was completing her toilet, but then she was always completing her toilet. It was her favored method of receiving male callers, never turning to look at them directly but rather gazing in the mirror as their visages swam up to bestow a reverent kiss on her withered cheek. The visitor remained standing throughout while the lady continued performing small, inconsequential experiments on various parts of her face. She was in fact still a handsome woman, shrewd-looking now, rather than silently knowing, as she had appeared in her youth. But she wanted to be young again, felt she had been cheated out of it the first time by a forced marriage to an older, indifferent (though fabulously wealthy) man, and so she took an interest in the matching of others, not wittingly to cause marital distress, she was no ogre, Elizabeth Choir de Bourneville Tattson, but with the vicarious thrill of a young girl waiting, folded hands over beating heart, for that first tall handsome pink-cheeked stranger to come and ask her to dance. Nevertheless, malicious onlookers claimed, unions encouraged by the venerable hostess more often than not proved unhappy. But who is to say this was her fault? She loved love, not the lovers, was the sad truth. Having been denied that essential candy in her youth--the only time large portions of it do not cloy--her nose was still pressed to the shop window, her eyes wide, her brain marvelling at the myriad possibilities. Still.
"You look ravishing," the Earl said.
"Yes, it is this new cream." She held up a tiny glass pot, as if he would be interested. "The fat of some animal." Her eyes, violet and sharp, were watching him pace in and out of the mirror's reflection. "I hear there is a storm expected. Maisie Cantwell's garden party is postponed."
"It's the confounded b-b-booterers," Choir burst out, throwing the note down on the dressing table where it lay incongruously among the powders and salves. "That I should be subjected to such trivial common little men and their impudent threats."
"People expect to be paid," The Baroness answered reasonably.
"And a man must wear boots."
"Yes." She turned now and smiled at the articles in question. They were pigskin, soft and slightly speckled where the bristles had once grown. Not so polished and squared-off at the toe as to appear those of a dandy, yet not scuffed and knocked-about as if he had just trekked through six acres of muck. The boots of a gentleman, she concluded. And a kinsman.
"I cannot you lend you money indefinitely," she said, relieving him of the ignominy of having to request her aid.
"I haven't enough. Not without the Baron knowing."
"I have asked nothing," the youth growled.
"But you will keep coming here and throwing bits of paper in front of me."
"If I could merely sell a few inconsequential farms on the outer boundaries of my lands."
"Entails are a useful device," the old lady nodded sagely. "Your father, for example, would have totally denuded the estate had your grandfather not tied up the property."
"The property, yes! But that didn't prevent the old buffer from borrowing against it, did it? And leaving me with the debts, so I cannot even go around London in a pair of boots!"
"You will wear them out," she said, eyeing the soles critically, "if you do not stop pacing."
Seeing no chair, the Master of Choir Castle and Environs deposited himself on the floor with a defiant "here I sit" attitude causing the Baroness to smile and reflect that, after all, he was only twenty-one, and thrust into a difficult situation.
"Marriage," she said (it was all they ever really talked about), "would seem the most obvious solution."
"Marriage to the right girl," he corrected.
"Well I am not a broker, Jeffrey."
"But you are," he smiled. "And I have come to examine the goods. Have you anything new?"
He exerted his charm and boyish insolence, sitting with legs crossed on the priceless bokhara. Yes, she thought, he could have any heiress in the country, if he put his mind to it. But something always held him back. He had deliberately--she was sure, though he would never admit it--wrecked the two previous alliances she had tried to effect, just when they seemed on the verge of success. These failures had left him, paradoxically, with even more of a reputation. He had such exquisite manners. He never seemed a fortune hunter, rather he came out of these engagements (that is how he always referred to them, adopting the word's military, rather than romantic, sense) with the enhanced air of a heart-broken lover, hiding all behind an impenetrable facade. But perhaps he is merely a soulless cad-in-the-making, she sighed inwardly. So hard to tell. The way his boots shone as he sat there patiently and submissively made her feel she must do something for him. But who was left?
"The Duchess of Straithairn has a daughter," she began tentatively.
"She has six."
"Five. But this one does not resemble a duck."
"Then she is not of the Duke's issue, I take it."
"Jeffrey!"
"Some handsome gardener's, perhaps," he laughed. "Be serious. Straithairn! A bunch of uncouth tribesmen bought off with a peerage under an illegitimate king."
"Choosiness rings hollow in an empty purse."
"I am nothing if not my reputation. I would rather marry a commoner with scads of money than sully one quartering on my coat-of-arms."
"I have proposed Laura Donegall's eldest before."
"The girl has a peg-leg."
"She is lame, Jeffrey. There is no need to be cruel."
"Give her a cap and a corn cob pipe and she could command a fishing smack."
"You are not serious," the Baroness protested, turning away from him and back to her lifelong preoccupation. The precious cream she had displayed before was now employed with deft, brushlike strokes under each eye. "When I was young there was none of this choosing." She heard herself, with horror, sounding just like her mother, but was unable to stop. "The young today are so selfish, thinking they know what is best for them. Your friend Finch, for instance. It is obvious to everyone that he and Lady Tabitha would make a picture-perfect couple. She has such quiet charm and great beauty. He is so genial and upright. Yet try getting the two to even say "Good day" to each other and you are accused of heinous manipulation!"
"As a matter of fact," Choir replied, drawing the piece of gossip out along with his platinum cigarette case, "there are new tidings on that front."
"Must you?" she asked, meaning smoke, but said nothing more to the spurt and hiss of the match. Rather she feigned indifference while waiting eagerly for him to continue.
"The two are lunching together. Today. One o'clock," he said simply.
The elderly lady clapped her hands.
"Excellent! How did he even approach her? No one saw."
"Finch has his ways. He is discreet." Unlike myself, the nobleman thought guiltily. But if in return for this tidbit of information she would make good his debt, well it was in some way an honorable transaction. Or so he told himself.
"She will wear her embroidered toque," Baroness fantasized, smoothing the remainder of the cream over her cheekbones with such an excited air you would have thought it was she going to the lunch. "And the blue ensemble. I should send a footman over to tell her so."
"You will do nothing of the kind," Choir said, thinking how incongruous the proposed dress would look at...where was it? Simpson's! Of all places. He rose briskly and tossed his cigarette in the corner. "Let the two breathe, for God's sake."
"Yes, you are right of course. Are the Lords sitting today?"
"Old Caxton said there might be a vote."
"You have made me very happy with this news, Jeffrey. I thank you. As for this," she tapped the still-folded note with her hairbrush, "banish it from your thought."
"I already have," he confessed. It was true. He had the shallow resilience of youth. "And you," he lectured, "don't go publishing the banns on those two just yet. They are merely having lunch. I do not want it all over town what I have told you."
"Perish the thought," she said.
He approached once more and this time gave her a kiss of true filial feeling. Choir's mother had died bringing him into the world. The old bat is not really half-bad, he told himself, tripping down the balustraded stair. His collar, though, raged to be loosened. It must be a hundred degrees in here !

* * *

It is time we met Lady Tabitha. Most striking were her eyes, green irises and intense whites, suggesting how medieval statuary might have looked when it was freshly painted. Her body, following the fashion of the day, hardly seemed to exist under layers of diaphanous clothes. It was a constant, shifting, languid suggestion. Her voice was a cat's purr, and what she said, the claws. For Tabitha Bourneville (the "de" came and went, depending on her disposition) had a sharp tongue and though her lot in life may have been to suffer fools she saw no reason to do so gladly. Finch arrived at the entrance to the chophouse and was surprised to see her in animated conversation with the owner.
"He says we are to eat in a room," she complained, dispensing with any conventional greeting.
"Yes," Finch admitted. "I took the liberty of--"
"I don't want to eat in a room. I want to eat with them." She motioned to the great mass of humanity bent over the communal trough of six long benches that ran lengthwise down the hall. "That was our whole purpose in coming here, I thought."
Was it? he wondered. Was she merely using him as an escort rather than returning any genuine interest?
"Look, I don't mean to be difficult," she said, reading his mind. "But this is what I came for. A holiday. Someplace I would not have to crook my finger and sip a cup of tea. Now you are the only man I know who is not frightened of those toothless tigresses back in Knightsbridge who might frown on someone taking me here, so please don't let me down."
She smiled. The Underground chose that moment to pass beneath them, or so it seemed to Finch, who registered the tremor with detached, good-natured curiosity.
"Perhaps a banquette?" he inquired of the owner.
There were several of these, padded and somewhat removed from the bear pit of the dining hall proper. This proved an acceptable compromise, and they were led to one that permitted a view of the spectacle while partly shielding them behind a spray of potted plant.
What one noted first was the din, more like a railway station than an eatery, and the narrowness of the aisles between each bench. Waitresses, in white blouses and sweeping checked skirts, struggled down long trench-like corridors holding high above their heads plates that sizzled and spat. Tankards were raised to be refilled as fast as new ones could be set down. All this took place under a high gabled roof with beams of sunlight piercing the smokey air.
Finch's gaze turned from large things to small, admiring how the banquette cupped Lady Tabitha in its leather palm. She had mastered the trick of appearing weightless, or buoyant, rather, floating on a gentle tide of scent.
"Happy?" he asked.
"Very," she said. "I needed this. I would loosen my stays if I wore any."
And now, she thought, the awful game begins. Her gaze returned longingly to the hurly-burly where men simply filled their mouths and shouted for more.
"How do you stand it?" she asked.
"Stand what?"
"I meant our world. Society, if you will. But I suppose for you it does not exist. One might as well ask a fish to describe the ocean."
"Whereas to a mermaid..." he smiled.
"Whereas to a woman," she corrected, "certain rules of etiquette almost forbid one from existing."
"Such as?"
"Such as the prohibition against solid food. What shall I have? I am hopeless at ordering. I am so used to simply eating what is put before me. Cold soups mostly. I hope they don't serve that here."
"Chops," Finch said, "are what you want. And, if I am understanding you correctly, perhaps a pint of ale."
"Oh no. Nothing stronger than lemon squash for me."
He barely repressed a sigh of relief.
"Now you know why I asked you to take me here. But tell me why you proposed we dine out in the first place?"
Why indeed? he echoed silently. This was clearly not going to be a typical luncheon.
"I do not know," he answered, surprised into frankness by having to think. "It seemed expected of us, to meet, to see if we had things to say."
"And you always do what is expected of you?"
"Not always, but often. I am a very conventional person."
"Admitting that doesn't make it all right, you know."
"What is wrong with convention? I mean I am very sorry if it means you cannot get a grilled chop at the Tattson House ball, but there is a form to society and I, for one, am glad of it. Otherwise these picturesque laborers and tradesmen," he nodded to the diners, "might very well tear us limb from limb."
Lady Tabitha was surprised, not so much at what Finch said but that he said it at all. She had always suspected him of being a fraud, a particularly handsome tailor's dummy. Perhaps it was the chagrin at hearing others sing his praises. He sounded too good to be true. She had got the sense he fooled them all. As perhaps now he is fooling me, she reflected.
Their chops arrived, massive bony things with thick brown crusts of fat. Finch instructed her how to saw off great chunks of meat while holding a heel of bread against the other side. Lady Tabitha, mindful of her dress, bent far over the plate, as if over a cauldron, having first tucked a napkin in below her chin.
"It is delicious," she said, chewing, her eyes shining.
"I'm glad."
They seemed to have either direct clashes, in which each tried to say exactly what he or she thought, or were reduced to simple statements of feeling, like weather reports. It was uncomfortable, but only because for both it was strange. They were used to the highly sophisticated chatter of the drawing room, which by now they could carry on without listening, either to themselves or their interlocutor. One simply skated on a boundless pond. There was no need to see where one was going. The whole aim was to cut a fine figure. Here, the silence seemed important as the talk. A section of his skull creaks as he chews, Lady Tabitha noted. As if he were made of panels. Yet the effect was not unpleasing. Finch wondered at the strange country they were already in, not friendship, not courtship. Where, then?
"You look divine," he murmured, rediscovering the ancient vitality of the cliche.
"But I am not," she shot back, mouth full. "I am on the block. Like he was." She motioned down to the chop. "Poor lamb."
"Your prospects are considerably brighter."
"Are they? A penniless debutante with, some would say, an unladylike disposition? You see I have no illusions."
"No illusions at all? How sad."
"Well, if I had illusions I would not know about them, would I?"
"Do you want children?" he asked.
She choked, her face reddening, swallowed finally and then laid a hand on his forearm, in plain sight of the other diners.
"I am sorry," she said. "I have never been asked that before."
"Really? And yet it seems a question of some import."
"Yes. I suppose it is. Do you?"
"Want children? Mansions-full, with a corps of nannies running after them." He looked down at her hand. So...naked. She wore no rings, there were no marks of age or wear, only perfection, embodied, and the vertiginous feeling she set off in him, as if London Transport had once again changed its course. "You should not, you know."
"Touch you?"
"In public. Yes."
"Why?"
"Because it compromises you."
"You mean it lowers my worth."
"In the eyes of some, perhaps."
"And in your eyes?"
He looked into hers. The noise of the chophouse, intolerable to him just moments before, now seemed to fade. Her eyes gave onto the recesses of a soul where he sensed great pain and fear, and a small stubborn flame of hope, as well. A difficult woman, he sensed. And worth any difficulty.
"I hope I am not interrupting," a voice said.
"Jonathan." Lady Tabitha then corrected herself. "Colonel Carter. What a surprise."
Her hand was no longer on Finch's arm, though its aftereffects lingered. Her gaze was likewise withdrawn. It was with difficulty he allowed himself to be expelled from that private place.
"A surprise indeed," the stranger said, referring to their surroundings.
"This is Mr. Finch. Lutwidge Finch, Colonel Carter."
The stranger was a florid, middleaged man with a thick black mustache and a bald, flattened skull. He gave an impression of solidity, as if he would be difficult to knock over, though Finch had a strong urge to try, as punishment for interrupting them. He was dressed in black, like a businessman or a member of the professional classes, but wore on the hand he extended several gem-encrusted rings, garish, worthless gewgaws, Finch judged, the color of grapes and tiger's eyes.
"Colonel Carter served in India," Lady Tabitha supplied.
The man nodded slightly and broke into an incongruous grin, a boyish recrudescence that sat oddly on a face so marked by sun and drink.
"I have known Tabby since she was this high," he said, flashing the rings again.
"Colonel Carter was acquainted with my mother. We met in Brighton, when was it? I could not have been more than twelve."
"Already a breaker of hearts," the Colonel said sentimentally.