"The interment is the
day after tomorrow, at the family chapel in Rottingdean."
The orchestra struck up a particularly gay mazurka which made this kind of talk even more incongruous.
"You ought to go, my dear," the Duchess said. "To pay your respects."
"To the dead? Yes, I could manage that," Lady Tabitha replied. "But I fear Sir Roderick's heirs would not take to my presence so kindly."
"Nonsense," the Earl said. "Sir Roderick showed a great interest in your father. It is only right you go."
"Perhaps I will, then."
For your sake, Father, she added silently.
"I hope we have not upset you," Choir went on. "Would you like me to escort you home?"
"No. Thank you. I have an appointment."
She regained her composure and managed to glide off, radiating once again that look of calm innocence. The Earl and Baroness both watched her depart.
"Not what you are looking for, Jeffrey," the Baroness reprimanded.
"No. Far too light in the funds department. Still, she has such a regal bearing. Did you see how she took the news? Fine blood, blue as my own, almost."
"But thin, perhaps." The Baroness squinted, raising her lorgnette briefly, then turning away. "Tabitha de Bourneville has not been through the fire yet."
"Through the fire? What are you talking about?"
"She has not had her mettle tested."
The old woman could be surprisingly sage, though this was wasted on Choir. He watched Lady Tabitha's slim figure ascend the stairs and turn off just before the landing, into the library.
"An appointment," he murmured.
Despite the delay, she found Lutwidge not pacing the floor in distraction but sitting by a reading lamp. There was no book in his lap. He merely watched the door. When she entered, he rose. She raised her cup to him in silent thanks.
"Venetian," he said. "I bought it when I was a schoolboy, my first trip abroad."
"It is beautiful."
"At the time I could not imagine what I would use it for. I simply had to have it."
He came up and took her hand. The soft light of this leather-bound sanctuary was welcome after the garish, glittering, noisy scene she had just quit. She admired his frame, so compact and well-proportioned. Most men tried to tower over you, even if they were not tall. They squared what shoulders they had and puffed out their chests like roosters scratching around a yard. His hazel eyes looked deep into hers. Fear suddenly overwhelmed her as she divined what was about to happen.
"Tabitha," he began. "Since I met you, my life has not been my own."
"What do you mean?" she asked nervously.
"It seems only one half of something greater. I have glimpsed another way of being that...I never knew existed before." She still held her cup. He took it from her and set it down. Now he held both her hands. "Will you be my wife?"
Her knees buckled. She felt, for just a moment, everything inside her collapse. But then she recovered and caught herself so she stood even straighter than before. Her eyes avoided him, though. He thought he saw tears.
Now you must not think Lady Tabitha had never received an offer of matrimony before. On the contrary, times had gone by when it was a weekly occurrence. She had perfected a number of ways to defuse these potentially explosive situations, from a gentle chiding and pointing out the impracticality, the unsuitability, of the match, to a grave, modest act of abnegation. "You are too good for me," was a white lie that had on more than one occasion crossed her lips. She was always amused by how easily people were persuaded of the fact. Other times she simply affected not to hear the question, regarding it as she would a rhetorical observation on the weather rather than an offer of lifelong companionship and financial security. In even the tightest of these squeezes she had managed to extricate herself without damaging the pride of the aspirant, indeed those she had jilted were often those she now felt most comfortable with. There was a sense of inoculation about them, that their fever had crested, the crisis passed, and they were now immune to the dangerous delirium of love.
But none of this applied to Lutwidge Finch, who had stepped into her life with the same ease and assurance he entered a drawing room. She rebelled--but rebellion already implied subjugation--against the fact that he seemed to take for granted what others had trembled for, often on one knee, their faint hopes growing fainter as they faltered on. Yet he was right, the way he had put it. They were a fact in each other's life. To go on now, without him, would be to go on a cripple, leaving part of her behind. Perhaps the best part.
"You do me honor," she managed to say.
"No," he answered, seeking her out. "This is the most selfish act of my life."
"Selfish! How can you say that of yourself? You have no idea what true selfishness is. I am selfish. I am vain. I am cruel. And I am penniless!" Now she did look up at him. "It's not a good match, Lutwidge."
"A 'good match,'" he scolded. "I love you. Do you love me?"
"We hardly know each other. We have met at balls. We have danced. We have had lunch. You walked me part of the way home. We--"
"Say you don't love me and I will leave."
She reached out...to give him a parting caress, she told herself later. A farewell blessing. But her fingers became entangled in his soft brown hair. The gown she wore, which had done yeoman's duty through so many occasions, which had been trimmed, dipped, turned inside out, had flowers pinned to it, ruffles sewn on and then ripped off, was now crushed in one final glorious action. She gave herself up to a feeling she had never known before and searched, fruitlessly, for the icy core she had thought an essential part of her soul, but found instead only a flooding warmth.
"Never leave?" she asked brokenly.
"Never," he said.
The human voice expands as it rises, like a bubble rushing to the surface, widening and flattening, until it bursts, mingles, loses itself in the greater whole. Such was the effect of the chorus as their hymn resonated in the unique hollow spire of Rottingdean cathedral.
"From the local school," Choir whispered, unwelcomely close, into Lady Tabitha's ear. "Sir Roderick was their chief patron. I'll bet he left them a tidy sum."
They were angels, their mouths opening and closing like organ stops. The white gowns they wore, she noticed, were already dirty. They had been chasing each other in the close just moments before. The gravity of the event meant nothing to them. They were children, and had not known the dead man. Yet the high, pure notes they struck seemed the essence of grief. There was, however, little outward display among the mourners. Sir Roderick was a lifelong bachelor and had not been close to any of his collateral relatives. He had turned down, it was rumored, the offer of a peerage, arguing that the title would become extinct upon his death and that he did not wish the trouble of changing his card. He lay now, sternly ignoring the onlookers, jaw rigid, face blank, as he must have appeared at countless diplomatic ceremonies, presenting credentials, witnessing the signing of treaties, representing his government at conferences.
For the occasion, Lady Tabitha had been forced to spend the last of her meager savings. It seemed wrong to wear a conventional black dress, one she had chosen years ago more for its ability to conceal splashes of mud than as an expression of loss. When her mother died, of course, there had been no question of buying the proper attire. An examination of the unfortunate lady's accounts had shown her hopelessly overdrawn, having depended sometimes three or four months in advance on her adopted family's "allowance". It was with a shudder young Tabitha had literally assumed the mantle of her dead mother, feeling the smooth, cold, black fabric of widow's mourning close over her head like icy water.
And now she was to marry, though she had told no one, and sworn Lutwidge to secrecy as well, not even permitting him to slip the ring he had produced onto her finger. It was not with this news fresh in the air she wished to finally meet her illustrious relatives. They would assume she had waited until the announcement before presenting herself, as if the prospect of being married to one of the richest heirs in the kingdom had given her the courage to face their awful stares.
"I want them to see me as I am," she had told him. "Poor as a rat. But with the pride and self-possession they thought they stamped out in my mother."
"Isn't pride a sin?" Finch asked.