"Come with me," he said impulsively.
This at least had the effect of making Bradley turn and stare with emptied eyes.
"To Tattson House?"
"Yes. On my arm. You will be the belle of the ball. In all your finery."
"In all my finery," he repeated. "I must be sick indeed, to merit such sacrifice on your part."
"Then tell me what you do want," Finch said angrily, getting up and pacing. There was ample room for this, not because Ghoulrich subscribed to any 'classical' aesthetic when it came to decoration. Quite the contrary. In its heyday, Finch recalled, this room was choked with Parma violets and fragrant lilies. There was a portable altar upon which a set of Sung Dynasty tea things sat, in addition to the usual clutter of bric-a-brac and bibelots. Now the severely white walls and cold floor--due to Ghoulrich's having sold all his possessions--gave an austere solemnity to even the most casual gesture.
"I would not want to be killed with kindness," Ghoulrich said, getting up himself, his gaunt, bent form still youthful, yet unsteady as an old man's. "And I truly am expecting someone."
"You want me to leave."
"Yes. Go to your ball. Will she be there?"
"Who? The woman you have been escorting these past few weeks. The woman whom the papers describe as being constantly in your company. The woman you have studiously avoided mentioning all evening, that is who."
"Lady Tabitha? I imagine she will." Another unexpected result of Ghoulrich's having emptied his rooms was that the sounds of the river were allowed to resonate. It was like being in a sea shell. "You are not coughing anymore."
"No. The crisis seems to have passed."
"Off you go, then," Ghoulrich said, determined not to punctuate this farewell with any grand speeches. He hobbled out to the stairs and leaned over the bannister when Finch was one flight down.
"If you are in love, don't try going halfway. It is not like crawling down the ladder of a bathing station. Dive. Dive from the highest peak."
"Go back to your mirror," Finch said, clapping on his hat.
But Ghoulrich did no such thing. Instead he disappeared into his closet with all the resolve of a jungle explorer and emerged a half hour later adorned in plumage worthy of the Bird of Paradise itself. He could feel another attack coming, but ignored it, as he did the insidious tauntings of the river. There were times on this journey when even objects became malevolent, leering, threatening him from the safety of their disease-free certitude. I will never die! they cackled, chairs, tables, brass curtain rods. Long after you are dead I will be gloriously here. Unchanged. I can be destroyed but I can never be sick. He whirled now in a cloud of ostrich feathers and tulle, defying them. The mirror itself seemed dizzy, drunk with his beauty. There remained only a pair of treacherously high heels, mannerist masterpieces of the cobbler's art. He ascended them as he would the papal throne, and from that exquisite height turned to the door, commanding, by the force of will alone, his visitor to arrive. A knock duly sounded, followed by the knob's slow pregnant turn.
(To be continued)