"Providence," the Reverend said. "The Lord working in ways not even particularly mysterious, to me. You saw a church. You were in need of spiritual consolation. You came in and knelt before the altar. You--"
"Yes, yes," Ghoulrich said. "I get the picture, thank you. It is one interpretation among many. The most obvious, I might add." Then he sighed. "You have been kind. And I have been rude. I beg your pardon. It is simply the shock of meeting a civilized human being."
"You are welcome here anytime."
"I think not," Ghoulrich smiled. "I must entertain you, next. And perhaps receive another dose of your muscular Christianity."
"I am at your service."
Ghoulrich laid his card, like playing a trump, on the clergyman's strewn desktop.
Am I in love? Finch wondered, watching a bird hop along the perfectly tended grass of the Park. It paused and pecked, seemingly at random, although who knew? Perhaps it was following a map to hidden treasure. "Ten paces north of the lightning-crazed oak," he recalled from a children's book of his childhood. "And dig till the blade o'your spade bites steel." Full fathom five his youth lay. Perhaps that was a sign, his feeling suddenly a difference between the past and present, as if some intervening event had taken place, which he was just now able to discern, the smoke clearing. But he was cautious, cautious beyond his years, a deliberation not taught him by experience or having witnessed some awful result of rash action, but due to a love of contemplation, a savoring of the possibilities. The future was actually his realm. He loved to sculpt it, with tactile fineness pinch in the details, then stand back, admire it from this way and that, wipe it smooth and start again. Yet...something about this most recent sensation impelled him, in a way previous dalliances had not. Lady Tabitha seemed in the process of reorienting his world, placing herself at its center and bending all else towards her like a magnet slid under a plate of iron filings. Oh rot, he thought. She is no doubt deep in consultation with her dressmaker and not sparing a thought for me. He made a threatening motion, uncharacteristically violent, though without the slightest intention, and the bird flew off. Still, the feelings it had inspired in him, a mix of anxiety and pleasure, remained.
"Ifeel sixteen again," the Baroness trilled, sitting beside him, having materialized from a row of bushes to his right. Indeed, she was almost dressed as one of them, in a bristling, herbaceous, tweed affair of forest green with sewn-in pearls like drops of dew, and a veil. This, he was sure, to add to the melodramatic suspense of their rendezvous, though there was nothing clandestine in their meeting, merely that he did not wish to see her in the perspiring confines of Tattson House. The Baroness, however, stared straight ahead and did not offer her hand to be kissed. Rather she disregarded him, feigning interest in the Serpentine, where ducks of all species bobbed for crumbs, watched, with envy, by the occasional pigeon.
"Good of you to come," he murmured, falling in with this air of intrigue. "I hope I did not drag you away from anything important."
"Important?" she echoed. "What could be more important to me than the state of a kinswoman?"
"That's just it," he said, turning now, not wanting this conference to degenerate into farce. "Simply put, I want to know who speaks for Tabitha Bourneville. I am offending someone, don't you see, if--if," he wagged a finger at the visible start the marriage-minded woman had given, "I go off dancing with her, dining with her, and find I have been neglecting to court some goitrous old guardian in Bath."
"You have nothing at all to worry about on that score," the Baroness said, and launched into her own version of Lady Tabitha's sad history.
Finch could make out her profile quite clearly through the black veil, which was the thickness of a single silkworm's labor. Is this what the priest sees? he wondered irrelevantly, through the screen, in the confessional?
"To conclude, aside from myself...and Choir, I suppose, both relatives on her mother's side, she is quite alone. She has made it clear that her father's lot are non grata. In hopes such as those I pray you harbor, she alone speaks for herself."
"There was a man. In Brighton, was there not? Some military officer?"
This brought the Baroness up short.
"A man? Of the mother's, you must mean."
She shrugged and set the hedge of her shoulders rustling.
"There were several men, I fear. That is not a trait poor Esme passed on to her daughter. But you don't need me to sing her praises, not in my old, cracked voice."